The Battle of the Georgetown Mill

The Battle of the Georgetown Mill

To black workers in this picturesque South Carolina town, the unionized steel mill anchors their community. To the town’s white civic leaders, it blocks Georgetown’s gentrification. For the past two years, they’ve been fighting it out.

January 24, 2018

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This article appears in the Winter 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Ed Green worked in Georgetown, South Carolina’s steel mill for almost four decades, overlapping with his father, who helped build the mill. His friends died, he won and lost union elections, and he challenged management to hire more black craftsmen. In later years, Green’s hips gave out, victims of contorting his body into crevices of the mill. His buddies called him Fred Sanford, after the television series’ title character, who wobbled more than walked. Though the mill closed in 2015, Green still regularly comes to the Steelworkers Union Hall.

Paul Skoko, a retired English teacher, grew up in the historic district of Georgetown, across Front Street from where Green’s father helped to build the mill. Skoko has remained in the house so he can continue to play the organ at his church, as he’s done for the past 52 years. The steel mill turned Skoko’s house a shade of rust. Since 2002, he has refused to paint. Skoko supports a city plan to rezone the land to prohibit steelmaking. If enacted, he says, it would “clear up all that crap, which would be really nice.”

The Georgetown steel mill sits on 62 acres on the edge of the Sampit River, rare waterfront property for heavy industry. It’s bracketed by two neighborhoods, whose residents see different futures for the hulking metal structure. Skoko’s historic district includes an increasingly active downtown, with five museums, restaurants, and the region’s largest furniture store. Across a busy highway, Green lives in the West End, which once included dozens of black-owned businesses but now has only three. Both neighborhoods used to be racially integrated. Now, white families live in the historic district, black families in the West End.

ArcelorMittal, the Luxembourg-based company that owns the mill, shut it down two years ago. When it closed, a small group of the region’s leaders began to make other plans for the site—plans more in line with an economy increasingly based on tourism and wealthy retirees.

Tim Vo/Creative Commons

Although they were both once racially integrated, today white families live in Georgetown's wealthier historic district (pictured here), while black families tend to live in the city's West End. 

But today, the mill’s mural has a fresh coat of paint, and Liberty House, a U.K. steelmaking conglomerate, says it will reopen it in the next few months. A low-income black community with few remaining institutions has been working with the union to reopen this imperfect one. In this majority-black city, white people have maintained control subtly and quietly, with civility. Once again, the ugly, hulking steel mill threatens that order.

 

Some Neighborhoods

When City Councilman Brendon Barber walks through the West End, he points out where particular black businesses used to stand. He shows me the site of three grocery stores, Poot’s Beauty Parlor, a combined shoe shine and corner store, and his parents’ supper club. Those businesses have long since disappeared, losing out to competition and rezoning.

When the mill opened nearly 50 years ago, most African Americans in Georgetown County still worked on farms and had little access to higher-paying jobs. The mill quickly got the reputation for hiring African Americans, even in skilled craft positions.

Most residents of the West End have a mill story, about kids put through college, houses purchased, and union battles won. Green, the Steelworker local’s vice president, sent two kids to college. Pastor Robert Davis bought his first car, a Toyota Corolla, in the late 1970s, with money from his job at the mill. During one shutdown, Davis got a real-estate license and attempted to find a realtor who would take him on. The local agents—all of them white—refused.

In April, ArcelorMittal announced that it had reached an agreement in principle with a buyer—Liberty House—to purchase and reopen the mill. The sale was completed in December 2017. If all goes well, workers will re-enter the mill within months. The union, working with residents of the black community, has led the fight to clear any obstacles to reopening.

Opponents of the mill’s reopening hold a different vision for the city, one where heavy industry will move inland and leave the waterfront pristine for families and tourists. Front Street is the center of downtown, and runs perpendicular into one end of the mill. Behind the Front Street stores, a harbor walk, where boats dock and signs warn of alligators, includes a prominent view of the mill. Georgetown is nearly 60 percent black, but the downtown establishments are full of white people. One Georgetown native told me that several of the long-standing restaurants had never hired a black employee.

In 2004, David Kossove, a Charlotte-based entrepreneur with a second home near the county’s beaches, bought a furniture store on Front Street. Downtown was dead, he says. “When I was coming here, people were saying, ‘He’s out of his mind.’”

Kossove claims some of the credit for downtown’s uptick. During a lunch at a Front Street Italian restaurant, in which he invested, he tells me about a new four-story mixed-use development he’s planning. If the mill reopens, he worries that banks will not provide the right financing. “The reasons that Georgetown hasn’t thrived is that we have this steel mill in the center of community,” he says. “You can’t have a steel mill at the expense of destroying a community.”

In the summer of 2016, with ArcelorMittal refusing to communicate with local officials, Georgetown civic leaders decided to engage a Washington-based think tank to analyze the site’s best use. Skoko liked the study. The city moved to rezone the property to allow multiple uses, envisioning light industry, retail, and parks. And though the mill now has a buyer and appears poised to reopen, the battle for Georgetown’s future is still far from over.

 

ArcelorMittal—Global Capital Comes and Goes

For years, the mill survived on a thread far flimsier than the wires it produces for suspension bridges.

The Georgetown mill is essentially a recycling plant, taking scrap metal, melting it down, and making wire rod, which goes into construction projects and automobiles. It has survived a succession of owners and bankruptcies, closing down in 2003 and again in 2009. Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital was one of the owners that put it into bankruptcy.

When Gordon Spelich, an Ohio-based entrepreneur, came to town for the first time, the mill was in one of its periodic bankruptcies. Spelich represented the International Steel Group (ISG), which had formed when his long-time colleague had pitched the idea to New York financier Wilbur Ross (now Donald Trump’s secretary of commerce). The colleague and Spelich became the leaders of ISG and put in a bid for the then-shuttered mill. Under ISG, the mill restarted and became profitable.

In 2005, ArcelorMittal, at the time just Mittal, bought ISG as part of a global shopping spree that would saddle the company with billions of dollars in debt. In the last quarter of 2014, ArcelorMittal lost $955 million and blamed Chinese dumping of steel at prices Western companies couldn’t match. In the following year, its losses rose to $6.7 billion. Faced with that deficit, the company announced that it would close its Georgetown mill, writing off the $19 million decline in the mill’s estimated value. When matched against the company’s overall losses, the savings from closing the mill amounted to “a rounding error,” says one former steel executive.

ArcelorMittal told the Georgetown steelworkers that it would shut down the plant and that this closure would likely be permanent. The company abandoned the property but retained ownership. Brian Tucker, the county’s economic development officer, and Paul Gardner, the city’s administrator, called and emailed ArcelorMittal every week for months, but Tucker says the company failed to answer. They forwarded offers for the mill to the company, but the bidders never received a phone call.

Ten years after his initial trip, Spelich also returned to the Georgetown mill, this time hired by a private equity firm with interest in purchasing and reopening it. He quietly put together a business plan. ArcelorMittal “didn’t care if it reopened or not,” he says. “They just wanted it gone.” The private equity firm could not agree with ArcelorMittal on a price.

ArcelorMittal finally met with Georgetown’s officials—but only at the insistence of Tom Rice, the area’s congressman. In June 2016, a company public relations official flew to Georgetown, and the company’s real-estate team, including Keith Nagel, the head of U.S. real estate, tuned in by phone. The ArcelorMittal representatives said the company would never reopen the mill, nor sell to a competitor. Community leaders came away believing that they should proceed with other plans.

For years, Hayne Hipp, a South Carolina businessman who owns a second home in Georgetown, had been talking about the future of the mill site, anticipating its closure. “It looks like a wart at the end of Cinderella,” he says. Once it closed, he helped convene a small ad hoc committee, including foundation executives, government officials, and a few wealthy retirees, which began meeting quietly. The group never had a formal membership, and only one black official, the chair of the county council, attended the early meetings. The team raised money and invited the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a D.C.-based organization that helps communities figure out how to use space, to conduct a study.

ULI came to Georgetown in September, interviewed more than 100 people, analyzed surveys of hundreds more, and produced a report that suggested a process for engaging Georgetown residents in discussions of the mill site’s future. ArcelorMittal politely declined to participate, but did allow access to the property. The city and county quickly moved forward with next steps, to begin the process of rezoning the property and to convene three public meetings to ask for community members’ input in the process.

That summer, Vik Sharma also came to Georgetown, but with less fuss. Originally, he wanted to examine the mill’s equipment for sale. Sharma found a mill fully intact with potential to reopen. A friend, Sanjeev Gupta, chaired a steel company in the United Kingdom, which was looking to open a mill in the United States. Sharma introduced Gupta and his company, Liberty House, to the leadership at ArcelorMittal.

For months, they negotiated in private. In early 2017, Liberty House called Spelich, and brought him to the table to help with the purchase.

AP Photo/The Sun News, Steve Jessmore

James Sanderson, who is white, is the public face of the local union, while Ed Green, the black vice president, stays behind the scenes. Here, Sanderson speaks at the Steelworkers Union Hall in Georgetown. 

The union toured the mill with representatives of Liberty House in November. The union contract has a successorship clause, which would have allowed it to veto the purchase. In February 2017, the union began formal meetings with Liberty House. When television stations asked James Sanderson, the local union president, the identity of the buyer, he says he would say, “I’m not at liberty to tell you.” ArcelorMittal released a statement, through Sanderson, saying that a purchase was possible. Sanderson says he had “forced their hand” by talking publicly, and in easily decipherable code.

Sanderson has been president of the local union since 1988, and acknowledges that he at times can be loud and divisive in a city whose leaders have been accustomed to settling matters in quiet conversation among themselves. His voice reaches a yell when excited. Sanderson, who is white, is the public face of the local union, while Green, the black vice president, stays behind the scenes.

The three community meetings all filled to capacity. The civic leaders intended the meetings to be the start of a public engagement process. Mill workers and their families took it as a threat to the mill. Throughout, Sanderson said the reopening of the mill might come soon. In one meeting, Green asked political leaders to stand up if they agreed with the mill reopening. Workers and their families protested more vocally than Georgetown is accustomed to.

Sanderson does not blame the leaders for thinking of new uses for the property when there was no buyer in sight. However, he insists, they should have changed their minds when it became clear that the mill could reopen. “If we think we’re under attack” and are about to launch nuclear missiles, he says, but “the minute before, we get more information, do we still push the button?”

On April 21, Liberty House and ArcelorMittal announced that they had reached a tentative agreement to transfer ownership, and that Liberty House would reopen the mill. Three days later, the Georgetown Planning Commission, a volunteer group that makes recommendations to the city council, met to consider the plan to rezone the property, a direct outgrowth of the ULI study. The rezoning would allow the mill to reopen, but only for five more years.

After months of refusing to engage with local officials, Nagel of ArcelorMittal showed up at the commission meeting and threatened a lawsuit. “If this ordinance passes and hinders this sale and/or future sales of the mill, they will have no choice but to seek legal actions for damages,” he said.

The commission voted 4 to 3 to keep the property as is, but the final decision belonged to the city council.

 

The Mill

The steel mill has always been a source of Georgetown’s hopes, fears, and divisions.

On October 13, 1967, the news that Korf Industries would build a mill in Georgetown took over all 16 pages of the Georgetown Times, including exultant advertisements from elected officials and local merchants.

Before the mill opened, the German-based company’s leadership chartered a 707 jet for more than 25 of Georgetown’s elected and appointed leaders to attend the opening of a similar mill in Germany. After the opening, they were treated to a Rhine River cruise up to Cologne.

The Georgetown mill opened during a period when the civil rights and labor movements often fought side by side. As the mill was opening, hospital workers in nearby Charleston were trying to organize a union; the governor arrested hundreds of strikers. Estes Riffe, an organizer for the steelworkers who had been shot at for his efforts in Miami, came to Georgetown to help organize the mill.

On April 17, 1970, the company dedicated the mill in front of a crowd including hundreds of Georgetown’s and South Carolina’s most powerful people. Strom Thurmond, the state’s legendary segregationist senator, attended and gave a speech of “great praise.” The next week, black and white workers voted by a margin of 4 to 1 to form a union.

The first contract negotiations broke down, however, over work rules. At an 11 p.m. shift change later that fall, the workers spontaneously initiated a picket line. They struck for six months. From the start, business leaders in Georgetown dismissed the strike as “a racial dispute.” White workers were immediately criticized for their association with black strikers.

The union leaders had made progress on unifying white and black workers, but needed more help. On December 5, they were joined by Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr.’s close friend and successor as the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Abernathy marched with Georgetown residents to the town clock, where they knelt and prayed. Then he spoke: “The Civil War broke the ability of the plantation-owning class to make war and oppress people, but it did not kill their desire to do so,” he said. “I want to commend us because we are here together, black and white. And that has been our dream for centuries. That has been our hope for years. … And I know that the power structure of South Carolina and of this city and of the South looked up and saw us coming today and notified the Pharaohs that it’s all over now.”

AP Photo/Lou Krasky

Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., came to Georgetown in 1970 to urge solidarity between white and black workers. Here, Abernathy gives the victory sign as he is escorted to jail following a trial for civil disobedience in nearby Charleston. 

After Abernathy’s visit, he often talked and wrote about how he saw hope for the South in the steelworkers of Georgetown.

The early debate over the mill’s role in the local economy previewed what would come. The mill needed a site with access to both rail and the water. “It’s a tragedy the mill is here; we are a historic area,” one Front Street resident told The New York Times in 1972, noting the pollutants the mill produced. “This was a lovely town. It could have been a tourist attraction.” The union representatives countered that complainers wanted to sacrifice good jobs.

At its height, the mill employed more than 1,200 people. Jo Camlin, the plant’s first local hire, would hand out a turkey for Thanksgiving and a ham for Christmas, plus a $25 present for each of the employees’ children. In those days, the mill and the union co-sponsored a basketball tournament, the Steel Town Shoot-off, providing practice jerseys and game jerseys. Brendon Barber coached.

In its initial decades, 13 people died at the mill, according to Green. On a down day, scheduled for maintenance, one worker backed one of the machines into his friend, crushing him. Green was on the other side of the mill, but word traveled fast. The friend’s kids were playing at Green’s house. Green called his wife. “I said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t tell those kids.’ He died later that night.”

No one has died since 1988, thanks in part to the union’s advocacy. The union successfully fought for a policy that requires that all employees in parts of the mill remove a lock before a machine operates. That would have prevented his friend’s death, Green says.

Green eventually worked as the union’s full-time safety representative. Where Sanderson is confrontational and loud, Green is laid-back and thoughtful. When we talked outside the Estes Riffe Union Hall in Georgetown, he thought through every answer. Green preferred to work in partnership with the mill’s administration. But under the final manager, he says, the relationship turned adversarial. The sole focus became production, the tonnage per worker of steel produced. The company deprioritized safety. Green filed multiple complaints to federal authorities, including one charging that ArcelorMittal cut corners that could cause lead poisoning. When the union won, one worker had to be removed from his workplace because of elevated lead levels.

Every steelworker with whom I talked had physical ailments. Green had just recovered from two total hip replacements and a back surgery. In 1991, a contractor from Texas dropped a 300-pound pipe on Sam Wragg. The next seven years remain fuzzy in Wragg’s memory. He had three back surgeries, a titanium plate in his neck, and a bone taken out of his right shoulder. “Oh god, I can’t even think of all these things that pipe did to me,” he said.

Yet workers still describe the mill as providing the best jobs they ever had, even as a kind of family. A unionized steel mill has a certain mystique among its workers. Part of that is the pay and benefits, but it can’t be explained solely by money. Part of it might come from the danger. Many of the older men had fought in the Vietnam War, some coming back with PTSD, and then stationed themselves in what was a dangerous work site. Part of it might come from the satisfaction in a finished product. “It was just a blessing to know that I came into contact with some of the steel they used around the world,” one retired worker told me.

Blatant bigotry didn’t go away in the steel mill, but the union hall provided an all too rare place for both the development of black leadership and an ongoing discussion among its black and white members. “There’s no color line,” says Wragg, 88, a black native of Georgetown, who served multiple terms as president of the local. “You represent everybody by a book, you have a contract book that you go by. If it’s in that book, I enforce it, I don’t care who you are.” An SCLC memo, following the 1970 strike, described white steelworkers learning about civil rights for the first time.

The mill always hired African Americans, but usually in the most dangerous, lowest-paying jobs. When Green started to work the mill in 1978, he says he was one of three black people among the ten skilled mechanics in his division. He was the last black person hired in a craft position, however, for at least a decade. The union’s civil rights committee eventually brought a complaint to the general manager. Hiring improved, but only marginally.

In recent years, under ArcelorMittal, Green noticed a return to old patterns. The last black mechanic—a skilled craft position—retired in January 2013, Green says, leaving a workforce of more than 50 white mechanics. A new hiring process required potential supervisors to take a test. Because the current supervisors are white, Green says the younger white guys received an inside scoop on the testing. When the mill shuttered, there were two black people in management, out of about 35. Fully 45 percent of hourly, lower-paid employees, however, were black.

“It’s hard for anybody to convince me that you can’t find” qualified black craftsmen, Green says. ArcelorMittal did not return multiple requests for comment.

When the Georgetown steel mill closed in 2015, 226 people lost their jobs. The union contract included supplemental pay, which meant that workers received a portion of their pay until July 2017. Some workers transferred to other plants, others retired with pensions. For those who wanted to stay in Georgetown, it was hard to find comparable work. Many waited months in hopes the mill would reopen, and eventually found jobs that paid a great deal less than the mill did.

The 226 workers whom ArcelorMittal laid off entered an economy that would offer fewer jobs with middle-class pay. In a nation of increasing inequality, we have run out of new ways to demonstrate that wealth does not lift all boats—but Georgetown still provides some. Poor children in the county end up worse off than those in all but 3 percent of the nation’s counties. Half of the city’s black people have incomes below the poverty line, compared with just 6 percent of white people.

 

How a City Decides its Future

The debate over the future of the steel mill quickly spilled over to the race for mayor. Councilman Barber, with the union’s support, sought to become Georgetown’s first black mayor. That would first require unseating two-term incumbent Jack Scoville in last June’s Democratic primary.

Harald Tittel/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

After abruptly closing the mill in 2016, ArcelorMittal representatives said the company would never reopen the mill, nor sell to a competitor. Here, a sign stands before the head entrance of ArcelorMittal's head office in Differdange, Luxembourg.

By South Carolina standards, although not by Georgetown’s, Scoville is a rarity—a white Democrat and a self-described union man. While making the rounds on Election Day, he recounted how he took apart the good ol’ boys network in Georgetown’s city government, replacing unqualified white personnel with qualified black folks. He ticked through the city departments led by black people. Nonetheless, he understood the electorate would break down along racial lines. If he were to win, it would be due to high turnout in the white areas, aided by Republicans who crossed over in the primary.

Barber, on the other hand, would count on high turnout in the black precincts. Barber is a seventh-generation Georgetownian on his mother’s side. He started at all-black Howard High, then, when integration came, became one of the first black students to graduate from previously all-white Winyah High. He went on to be a wide receiver at Michigan State, a distinction his constant sports metaphors reinforce.

To the extent that issues mattered in the primary, the steel mill mattered. Barber initially supported the rezoning, then opposed it when it became clear the mill would be purchased. He attempted to finesse his pro-mill stance by arguing that Georgetown did not have to choose between industry and hospitality. “The history of Georgetown tells us that we can do both,” he said. He promised to work with the steelworkers union, and stay out of the way of negotiations between the current and prospective owners.

Scoville, by contrast, continued to advocate for rezoning the property, even when Liberty House emerged as a potential buyer. He supported reopening, but said that he wanted to protect the community if the mill closed again.

The election didn’t really come down to policy, however. When Scoville’s white supporters finished talking about the mill or praising his opposition to offshore drilling, they would whisper to me why “other people” supported Barber. It’s all about race, they’d say.

What Scoville’s supporters wouldn’t say aloud is that politics in Georgetown, as in much of the South, has always been about race.

Scoville entered politics by proximity. He joined the law firm of the Rosen brothers, one who served in the state legislature and the other as mayor. The Screven Street Gang, an informal group of attorneys and political officials, would get together at the firm to select each year’s candidates. The Rosens invited Scoville to meetings.  The Gang members were mostly Democrats, even progressive by the day’s standard, but also all white.

African Americans in Georgetown have always sought a share of leadership. During Reconstruction, a black Georgetownian forged an agreement that allowed Republicans, predominantly black, to select the local senator, a house representative, a probate judge, a county  commissioner, and the school commissioner. As in the rest of the South, the state eventually but thoroughly wiped out this fusion politics.

Wragg, a Georgetown native, returned in 1972 from Chicago, where he’d worked at a union shop. Three days later, he went to work at the mill, and immediately entered politics, both at the mill and in the broader community. The steelworkers union had black leadership well before the local government: its first president was black.

The union leaders often became political leaders. Wragg helped to start a group that pushed for single-member council districts, which would allow neighborhoods to elect members to the council. Wragg says that he has seen less political interest from young folks in today’s Georgetown—but, he added, this year’s mayoral election brought new people to the table to support Brendon Barber.

The results bear that out. Barber took almost 60 percent of the vote in the primary. Turnout was up. The largest black district, Dreamkeepers, went to Barber by a margin of 10 to 1. The night of the primary, Scoville shook Barber’s hand, put another hand on his shoulder, and endorsed him for the general election. Barber would still have to overcome a formidable white opponent—the Republican nominee—and that has never come easy in Georgetown.

 

A Plantation Economy

Take the highway east from the steel mill, across the Winyah Bay on the way to Myrtle Beach, and several exclusive housing developments list multimillion-dollar homes. Kossove’s second home is in the DeBordieu Colony, the most exclusive of the developments. One of his friends came to his furniture store to buy $500,000 in furniture for a DeBordieu home.

A sanitized legacy of slavery remains central to the area’s brand. Private golf courses, quail hunting lodges, and gated second-home communities sit where slaves farmed rice. Take your  pick of at least six plantations for a wedding, including a few named for plantations that never planted anything. Play a round of golf at Heritage Plantation, which also never existed. “People will purchase 200 acres of nothing and put a plantation name on it,” says Chip Hall, president of Plantation Services Inc., which buys and sells “plantations” in the region.

In the last couple of years, Hall sold the 766-acre Georgetown County property where Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandfather lived as a slave, then as a sharecropper. The property still includes a slave village, six or seven cabins, and a graveyard with stone and cypress tombstones. Oscar Johnson Small II, a Greenville-area real-estate developer, paid $4.26 million for the property, and has used the land for hunting.

Marketing materials for the golf courses and wedding venues rarely mention slavery. But occasionally Georgetown’s Rice Culture Myth shows up. In the Rice Culture Myth, West African slaves brought their expertise in rice growing with them, teaming up with slave owners to create the legendary Carolina Gold. “Historians agree that South Carolina’s rice economy was the product of Anglo-American entrepreneurship coupled with African-American know-how and labor,” writes one plantation, which offers authentic Southern weddings starting at $4,500. “After completing the work, any remaining time belonged to the slaves. During this period, they were free to work their own gardens, fish, and some even hunted wild game—though hunting was very rare.”

White folks in Georgetown, and sometimes even black folks, repeat the Rice Culture Myth. It’s been extended through Reconstruction, when freed slaves purportedly chose to remain with their former owners in neighborhoods where whites lived amicably next to blacks. The myth moves forward to the years of school integration, where the all-white Winyah smoothly merged with all-black Howard.

No one disputes the skill and even responsibility of the enslaved people who built Georgetown’s economy. The myth just leaves out the beatings, rape, and miserable working conditions of slavery. It ignores the teacher who told the white students in Green’s class that they would just have to make the best of integration, and the countless instances, big and small, of discrimination and exclusion from the institutions that shaped how Georgetown would run and how Georgetownians would live.

Image Courtesy of Max Rose

Georgetown, South Carolina's steel mill along the water

When slavery ended, rice farming lost its viability. The planters sold their farms, often to wealthy Northerners for duck and quail hunting.

The Northerners and planters would come together at the Winyah Indigo Society, an exclusive social club. The rules, reprinted in 1958, lament that records “were lost or destroyed during the War Between the States, when Georgetown fell into the hands of the Federal Forces.” After the Civil War, the white citizens of Georgetown met at the Society’s Hall, organizing “a Club for self defense.” The Society still meets quarterly and includes many of Georgetown’s most prominent leaders. They eat, drink a special punch, and make toasts to Georgetown, the press, and the bar. The society has about 150 members—now, as always, all of them white men. Nowhere do the rules mention race or gender. New members must receive a nomination from an existing member, but anyone can get married at the Hall.

Most Southern places have a Rice Culture Myth. It is the story many Southern whites—my people—tell when they want to make clear how racism long ago went away. It’s the story that enables us to say, “This shouldn’t be about race.” We tell our Rice Culture Myth when we want to forget that we enslaved, separated, and continue to exclude black people from our economy.

The Rice Culture Myth serves to validate the closed circles of decision-making, and the wisdom of the few white people who decide. In a foundation board room, leaders of a handful of institutions meet to determine the fate of the mill. In the mill itself, supervisors tap their friends for promotion. They might not set out to put less value on the livelihoods of black folks. In Georgetown, it just works out that way.

Personal relationships between blacks and whites appear genuine. I saw Skoko greet his black neighbor on her porch, and the white storeowner who knew the black customer’s previous order and carried the next order to the car. Brendon Barber is the great-grandson of a Jewish merchant as well as the great-great-grandson of a black woman who married a white plantation owner and bred horses. At least two people who share Sam Wragg’s name were members of the Winyah Indigo Society.

In the small-town South, where lives if not bloodlines run together, it’s complicated. Rice Culture Myths are dangerous not because they inflate relationships, although they can do that. They are dangerous because they confuse those relationships with justice.

 

Changing Times?

After his primary victory, Barber still had to beat the Republican nominee, Ron Charlton, who owns a local cable company and sits on the county council. As in most of the South, Republicans have increasingly claimed the lion’s share of the white vote. Despite a Democratic advantage in voter registration, Scoville had won the 2013 general election by just 40 votes.

In November, however, Georgetown residents overwhelmingly elected Barber to be their first black mayor. Election officials think the 41 percent turnout might be the highest for a municipal election in Georgetown’s history. While Barber won in black districts, he also garnered votes in the white parts of town. The union helped win support from some white working-class voters.

At a council meeting the next week, the rezoning came up for another vote. The council voted 4 to 3 to continue with rezoning—the four white members voting yes, the three black members voting no. The compromise rezoning would allow the mill to continue to operate indefinitely, as long as it is not abandoned for more than a year.

The rezoning was completed in December, and the mill could be up and running by late March. The union has agreed to a pay cut, and the new jobs will average $90,000, including wages and benefits. Spelich projected that the mill will employ slightly more workers—250—than when it closed.

Georgetown’s order certainly appears to be changing. The union and the black community intend to take a role in deciding the city’s future. After Barber becomes mayor, the council’s composition will shift to five black members (including Barber) and two white members.

But myths die hard, and Georgetown’s Rice Culture story might persist long after the mill reopens and the first black mayor takes office. “Georgetown has always been a community that’s been united, and that was due to the rice culture,” said Barber, a couple of weeks after his win. “So, we’ve got to bring that back.”  

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