Cheraw Town Councilwoman Jacqueline Ellerbe-Shannon said her life’s mission is to see that “this community, and the world, recognizes Levi G. Byrd for the tremendous leader he was.”
Byrd, born Jan. 4, 1891, may not be as well known as other civil rights leaders, but he is credited with establishing the original Chapter of the NAACP in Cheraw.
“Everything we do, every opportunity we are afforded today, is on his back,” said Ellerbe-Shannon.
Several years ago, she initiated an effort to rename one of the town’s parks in honor of the late civil rights leader. Levi G. Byrd Park, which consists mostly of basketball courts, a small field and some playground equipment, is just over the railroad tracks by Old St. David’s Church, off Front Street.
Several of Byrd’s relatives still live in town or nearby, and attended the dedication to the park in 2008. Ellerbe-Shannon said she hopes many of them will return Sunday, Dec. 16, at 10:30 a.m. for this year’s celebration of Byrd’s life at Pee Dee Union Baptist Church.
Ellerbe-Shannon is currently leading a fund raising campaign for the purchase of a bronze bust of Byrd to be placed in the park. The bust will include a synopsis of his contributions to society and his influence on the history of black people in our community, state and nation.
Cheraw Mayor Andy Ingram said that as a young boy he could remember riding with his father “over to Mr. Levi’s house on Washington Street” to discuss the politics of the day. Ingram said his father, who also was a politician, once told him that Levi Byrd would one day be remembered as a great statesmen. “And that has certainly become the truth,” said Ingram.
Byrd was a plumber by trade and had an excellent reputation for good work with both the white and black community, said Felicia Fleming McCall, a local historian with the African American Heritage Center on Kershaw Street in Cheraw.
At the time Byrd was requesting a branch here, NAACP chapters in Charleston and Columbia had dissolved from fear of repercussions. But that didn’t stop Byrd.
According to articles written by the late Bernice Robinson, who was also a charter member of Cheraw’s NAACP, his nickname was Old Byrd Agitator. Byrd, she said, wore his NAACP lapel pin into every home, white or black, to do his plumbing work.
“Teachers and friends were afraid to be seen with him on the street,” said Robinson, yet the first chapter opened with 53 members.
In a letter addressed to Thurgood Marshall, Byrd once wrote, “As long as I and some others who have nine lives - the NAACP will never die in South Carolina - Right will win.”
“He was a small man in statue,” said Ellerbe-Shannon, “but his dreams and visions were huge.”
Byrd’s original, hand written letters to New York, requesting to form a Cheraw Chapter of the NAACP, are part of the national archives in the Library of Congress.
One of Byrd’s initial letters to the NAACP drew this response by Lucille Black, “We regret very much to learn of the brutal treatment of Negroes in Cheraw. We are referring your letter to our Assistant Secretary, Mr. Wilkins, who will write you as to what can be done in the matter of the severe beating you received at the hands of several white men. Please keep us informed regarding the progress being made in organizing the branch and let us know anything we can do to assist in the work.”
A letter from Byrd, addressed to Thurgood Marshall, reads, “very sorry that I live in a state like this but we are determined to make it a decent place to live for our children and all that comes after us. By obeyn the law of our great America as a whole.”
Several years later, in July of 1939, a typed letter from Byrd addressed to William Pickens of the NAACP, reads, “Evry body hear are satisfide with our N.A.A.C.P. in Cheraw and Chesterfield County and I will do all that I can to make it one of the Strongest in the state. And two if you ever comes thrue the South we wish you to come to Cheraw.let me know long anuff ahed so we can get our selvs fix so we can imform the Publice of your coming.”
Likewise, Ellerbe-Shannon invites the community “to be informed and be involved.” The public is invited to share in the celebration of Byrd’s live this Sunday at Pee Dee Union Baptist Church.
— Staff Writer Karen Kissiah can be reached by calling 843-537-5261, or by email at email@example.com.