Home Rule Part VI: Perry White
Author: Paul deVere
Twenty-five years ago, on August 5, 1983, Mayor Ben Racusin and his council members were sworn in to become the first elected officials of the new Town of Hilton Head Island. That one historic event helped create the Hilton Head Island we know today and helped define its future. Perry White has been keeping the town on its toes ever since.
Perry White: respected, passionate community leader—and the opposition.
Perry White related a funny story he’d been told about his grandmother. Sea Pines had just installed a guard gate on Greenwood Drive. White’s grandmother was going to pay a visit to Lawton Cemetery, a native islander cemetery located in the Club Course area of Sea Pines, near where she had once lived. “My grandmother, her name was Rosa Williams, came up to the gate. The guard said, ‘That will be 50 cents.’ They told her. My fine grandmother, my church-going grandmother literally cursed that man out. When she got through, he looked at her and said, ‘Ma’am, please go through this gate.’ He forgot all about the 50 cents and begged her to come through.”
White set the scene perfectly and softly, laughed at the memory. Then he added, “That was the frame of mind, and that’s the point I’m trying to convey. It was a perception of that generation of what had happened to home, what had happened to our island, and what had happened to us in the process. That was the force that got me going,” White explained.
In 1983, White was the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, which led the battle against incorporation of Hilton Head Island. The reasons for the organization’s opposition were both simple and complex. Like so many other native black islanders, Perry White’s family had been on the island for many generations and had strong ties to the land and a way of life that was quickly vanishing as development on Hilton Head charged ahead. That was the simple part of the equation.
A more complex part had to do with representation in government. In 1983, the NAACP brought the new town to court, saying incorporation violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “The law talks about any formation of government or any type of restructuring of government that resulted in a diminishing of representation by minorities. Many people don’t know it, but in the 1970s, Beaufort County had a black majority on county council. By having an opportunity to vote countywide, we could have blacks in more places, we could elect officials, we could have representation far superior than what we would have had if we were dealing with local government,” White explained.
But closer to home, opposition also had to do with land restrictions, infrastructure (like paved roads and water and sewer lines) and fairness. “Our concerns were that a government was going to impose regulations and give nothing up in return,” White said.
White’s strong advocacy for his community comes from his growing up years on Hilton Head, his family and friends, his career in the U.S. Air Force, and history all played a critical role. To see Hilton Head Island through his eyes is an extraordinary experience.
Perry White’s family has owned land on the island since emancipation. “My grandfather owned several acres. Ben White is the grandfather I’m talking about. You’ve seen Ben White Drive, next to Union Cemetery. We were told that he started acquiring land at the age of 17. In fact, he owned 30 acres in Palmetto Hall. That’s the milieu I grew up in. I grew up in a farming family, so land was critical to us,” White said.
For cash crops his family grew watermelon and butter beans. “Hilton Head had commercial sail boats. Several men in this town built their own boats. We had fishing communities and farming communities. Then we had those guys who sailed the commercial boats taking produce to City Market in Savannah—about four or five of them. Then there were those who were fishermen and what we used to call the river people. They didn’t do a lot of farming. We didn’t do any boating,” White laughed.
“We had our development here. We had our division of labor. We had our structures. People (who came later) didn’t recognize it for what it was. There were carpenters, a blacksmith (who also repaired shoes). The community was very self-sufficient. That’s the point I was trying to make,” White said.
In 1953, White began a 20-year career in the Air Force, which included a two year rotation at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey from 1957-59. His wife and family were with him. Think of U2 spy planes and the Lebanon crisis in 1958. “I was in administrative services. We would run the orderly rooms, keep records for all the troops at the squadron level. I spent a lot of my time in publication distribution. We were running the post office, running a communications center, we could do anything,” White explained.
In 1973, White retired as a Master Sargent and came home to a much-changed Hilton Head Island. In those 20 years, the island had gone from a rural Gullah community to a frenzied development. The island he left was virtually all black. When he returned, the black population was definitely in the minority and the percentage of native islanders was shrinking rapidly. Almost immediately, he became involved. “I was an involved person before I came back. My children, school, church. I didn’t get involved in government, but got involved in a lot of volunteer work in communities (where we lived).
“But you know, it’s kind of in my genes. My grandfather was a very strong community leader and my dad was a community person as well. I think he was the first black to serve on the southern division of the Beaufort County school board. I don’t remember in my lifetime when I started hearing it. As far as I’m concerned it was pounded in me all of my life. (My father said) you had a responsibility to your community. That’s what I understood,” White said.
So he came back and joined the local branch of the NAACP, because 1973 was the first big push for incorporation. “I attended a meeting and I started asking a lot of questions. The attorney for the NAACP, who was very close to the president, immediately suggested, ‘You put him on your board. You can’t have that guy out there working against you.’ So I got appointed. I got a job taking minutes, doing all kinds of stuff. I guess when you write, you have to shut up,” said White.
While he had visited Hilton Head during his Air Force career, the pace of change was both astonishing and worrisome. “Having been exposed to so many countries and so many different places, I came back here with a reflection. When we (USAF) were in all these countries, I could never understand why those people didn’t like us Americans. We were nice; we did a lot of things for them. But we also took a big slot out of their community, put a fence around it, put a gate to it with guards and locked them out. Until I came back home, I never understood their feelings.
“I did then. We were outside of the gate. There were areas that used to be open, that belonged to us way back, whose property line wasn’t important. We could do anything we wanted to, anywhere we wanted to. Then, to find all these restrictions…” White recalled. Like his grandmother, Rosa Williams at the gate to Sea Pines, trying to visit a family grave.
The idea of a black beach and a white beach on Hilton Head Island also astounded him on his return. When he was growing up, blacks from all over the South would come to Hilton Head beaches. If black schools in Savannah wanted to bus the kids to the beach, they couldn’t go to Tybee. They came to Hilton Head. When White returned home, there were gates and the beaches were closed.
Upon his return, White did not want to turn the clock back. His experience in the Air Force allowed him to see a much bigger picture of the world. What he (and others in the native black island community) was fighting for was equality, not an easy commodity to grab in a society where private developments and developers wielded all the power. He was fighting for basic services that government—first the county, then the town—traditionally handled, such as road maintenance and a sewer system that would extend into the black communities.
But White persisted. >From 1974 to 1982, White served on Beaufort County’s joint planning commission. As incorporation plans were being created, White said, “Developers were guaranteed that the plantation system would not be interfered with and all master plans would be stamped exempted. I was on the planning commission when these things were being processed. Everyone who could get one in and get it stamped ahead of (incorporation) did so.”
White was not alone. Other black community leaders were there, too. White ticked off the names: Emory Campbell, Charlie Simmons, Daisy Ferguson. “Tom Barnwell worked very hard.”
Over the past 25 years, White has continued to ask questions, is still passionate about his community. “Why do we not have sewer service; why do we have unpaved roads; why do we not have these things? And at the same time we have some of the most stringent land management controls that you’ll find in this country,” said White.
There is so much more to Perry White’s story—of things that haven’t gotten done, or things done but not finished, or answers to questions the have gone unanswered for 25 years. And there is his wit and humor that go along with all this. His laugh. His smile. His insights.
“I see these things and I speak to some people about it and try not to make so much noise, but they’re so visible if you only have the eyes to see it. Somebody needs to point these things out,” he continued. And there was the smile. “Those same spirits, thoughts, ideas and needs that we saw before incorporation, and kind of forecasted were not going to be adequately addressed, says to me we were not totally wrong.”
But as Perry White looks at the future, he also sees hope… and reality. Of his town, Hilton Head Island, he said, “We’re up and running, but we are not complete.”