South Carolina: My Take

South Carolina Armstrong Williams Devon Smith.JPG

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of joining Armstrong Williams on a trip back to his family farm in Marion, SC. Heading into the trip, I truly wasn’t sure what to expect. I have spent time in the South, most recently when I lived in Athens, GA for veterinary school. However, Athens is a bustling college town and quaint Marion, SC certainly is not! 

We arrived early on Friday morning and headed directly from the Myrtle Beach airport to the family farm for lunch. The hour-long drive took us from the populated and busy Myrtle Beach corridor to the increasingly quiet slow-paced life of the country. We were warmly greeted on the farm by Armstrong’s brother, Gerald, and Chef Du Jour, Emma. I can now safely declare that when someone references “southern cooking” I know what they are referring to. Emma prepared a delightful fish-fry for lunch and it paired with traditional southern sides. It probably goes without saying to mention that there was sweet potato pie for dessert, assuming that we weren’t full!

After lunch, we migrated to Florence, SC for a cocktail reception in Armstrong’s honor held by the South Carolina GOP. Fmr. Chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, Van D. Hipp Jr., a longtime friend of Armstrong, presented him with a lifetime achievement award for his dedication to the Republican Party and for his continuing mentorship and guidance to young conservative thinkers. I think I can speak for our entire team when I say that most of us were still too full of lunch too even think about munching on the buffet!

Armstrong arranged for me to stay in a cabin on the farm that evening and so, following the reception, I returned with Armstrong to Marion. I was hesitant to stay in a cabin alone in an unknown area and the rest of the team certainly jested with me as they were staying in a hotel. Well, joke was on them! As I relayed to Armstrong the following morning, I had not had such a restful sleep in ages. There is something to say for inherent peace and quiet that comes with living in the country.

The next morning, Armstrong and I headed to our affiliate station, WPDE, to film our regular, Saturday morning, live broadcast. One of the things I enjoy most about joining Armstrong on air is the variety of topics that we cover and the variety of people that join us in discussion. We discussed the public-school system in South Carolina and how the challenges it faces vary from the challenges faced in inner-city public-school systems, particular Baltimore, where I grew up. Perhaps the most notable piece of information came from a guest who pointed out that South Carolina is a “right to work” state, meaning that unions are prohibited. Unions are NOT prohibited in Baltimore. While both school systems face challenges, the ensuing conversation made it seem obvious to me that the teachers’ unions in Baltimore are doing more harm than good.

Following the broadcast, we returned to the farm for another one of Emma’s mouthwatering meals! This time she wowed us with pork ribs and obviously, another sweet potato pie for dessert. After lunch, Armstrong’s brother, South Carolina State Senator, Kent Williams, gave us a tour of the area on four-wheelers. We travelled by fields of soybean to reach the Pee Dee River. What beautiful scenery and had Kent not mentioned alligators, I likely would have gotten in. I’m still not sure if he was joking or not but better safe than sorry.

The next morning, I joined the entire Williams family for a dedication in their mother’s honor at the St. James AME Church. Coming from a Catholic background I wasn’t sure what to expect and prepared myself for a droll, sleepy Catholic Mass. Boy was I in for a delightful surprise. I’ve never experienced such a vivacious, uplifting, warm and welcoming service. In the same breath, it was also humbling.  I was the only White person in attendance, something I quickly picked up on that did not seem to faze a single other person present, something that certainly says more about me than anyone else. I was welcomed by all; my skin tone was absolutely irrelevant. My observation and experience, certainly made me more able to understand colleagues and friends who are also minorities when they discuss their life experiences and how they may differ from because of their race.  Mass at St. John’s AME was an invaluable lesson in life and I will forever be grateful to Armstrong for asking me to join him.

A family gathering at the farm followed where I was once again spoiled by southern cooking! I spent the afternoon amongst Armstrong’s family and extended family hearing stories and simply enjoying watching them jest with each other. Reminding me, as time continues to pass, and I grow older, how grateful we should all be for the fleeting moments when family and loved ones are gathered together. I can now say that I’ve truly experienced the “Deep South” and what a pleasure it was, I truly cannot wait to return!