Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Charleston's First Black Mayor Ready to Bridge Gap

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This is the old Bank of Charleston Building, now the home of the Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort (CARE). Photo by Jason Wiliams

Ask Sedrick Smith what it means to be the first black mayor of the 176-year-old city of Charleston, Miss. and the answer might surprise you.

Charleston is unique in that it is one of two county seats in Tallahatchie County, which is most famous for producing a jury that acquitted Emmitt Till’s killers. But, decades prior to the infamy that trial brought, Charleston was home to the world’s largest lumber mill, Lamb Fish Lumber Company. At the turn of the 20th century it was one of the largest, most progressive cities in North Mississippi. This dichotomy makes for an interesting contemporary dynamic, as vestiges of its cosmopolitan early days exist right alongside a sometimes-unfortunate manifestation of historical racial strife.

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Charleston’s first black mayor swears in. Photo courtesy of the Charleston Sun Sentinel. 

Enter this year’s special mayoral election as long-time Mayor Robert Rowe retired citing health problems. Smith, a former city councilman, won the election in a landslide making him the first black mayor of the town. And yet, when asked what this means to him he replied in his soft-spoken, self-assured way, “I am proud of that now, but coming into the race, I never thought about it. I was just trying to win … as for the racial guidelines, it didn’t really have that much of an effect.”

He comes across as an almost inexplicably post-racial politician. But one who also understands the lingering effects historical injuries have on those he serves.
“I think the people in Charleston were looking for a person who would help bridge the gap between black and white,” Mayor Smith said. “And I think I’m that person.”
Smith freely admits the pressure to cater exists, but insists that is not the proper way to govern. In a refreshing moment of honesty that is rare to hear from a politician at any level, Smith offered, “I made a pledge to serve honorably and righteously, and in so doing, I would drop the racial guidelines. When I’m behind this desk, I’m everyone’s mayor. I don’t serve one group over another.”

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The Charleston Square at night. Photo by Jason Williams.

It is Smith’s core values of family and integrity that support his ideal of community unification. He describes himself as a family man who believes in God and the sanctity of one’s integrity. Smith sees the issues facing Charleston and feels he possesses the youth, vigor and honesty to meet them proactively.
At 41, it is believed he is Charleston’s youngest mayor ever. Smith sees his youth as an advantage saying he can work to bridge the gap, not just between black and white, but young and old.
One of his first priorities is to update the actual office of the mayor, an office that not only lacks Internet, but has never had a computer in it.
“I’m going to add these technologies to the office,” he maintains, “and it will be a plus.”
Smith also has a plan to lift Charleston out of the economic stagnation it has experienced in recent years, which, he hopes, will staunch the rampant depopulation that has served as the death knell for other Delta towns.
His plan starts with city beautification. He intends to work with groups like the Magnolia Garden Club and the Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort (C.A.R.E.) and the Charleston Day Club to further the work they have already begun. C.A.R.E.’s executive director, Glenna Callender said, “We’re absolutely looking forward to working with Mayor Smith. From our talks already we know we are of a like mind. We are people who care about Charleston and want its outside to reflect the inner goodness of the people who live here.”
According to Smith, “Our Square is beautiful, but it’s time to move into different neighborhoods to make sure our whole town is as attractive as can be.”
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Charleston’s West Main Street. Photo by Jason Williams.

Having a town everyone can be proud of is a vital first step, and well within the purview of the mayor and city council’s responsibility. Other issues may prove to be more challenging, however. At the core of Smith’s plan is making sure the city is doing all it can support the educational development of its young people. Retired public school educator and city councilwoman, Meg Miller, believes Mayor Smith is on the right track: “Just for him to want to address this at the city level is encouraging, since it has never been done before,” she said. “Smith is an open-minded and fair progressive. We look forward to working with him on this.”
With a beautiful town and a well-educated populace, convincing businesses to stay and attracting new businesses to locate here will be a much easier sell. One of the leading causes of the Delta’s depopulation is the loss of employment opportunities. Smith plans to work with business leaders to ensure the city is doing all it can to keep them here and keep them profitable. “I want to go to each job site that is already here and see how we can help,” he said. “I like the slogan on the sign at the edge of town, ‘Shop Charleston First.’ I want to make sure that remains a possibility.”
The mayor sees making Charleston a business-friendly, economically robust town as his greatest challenge and possibly his most important work. That achievement will help more than anything attain his overarching goal of leading a truly unified community.
Mayor Smith is right to recognize his youth and energy as two of his strongest assets. The fact that he sees the importance of laying old racial wounds aside and forging ahead as “everyone’s mayor,” shows his heart is in the right place. He aspires to be an elected leader who understands that opening his heart to everyone doesn’t have to mean closing it to anyone.
“I’m not just mayor for the people who voted for me,” Mayor Smith said, “I’m the mayor for those who voted against me as well.”
Story and photos by Cal Trout. Trout is a journalist who chronicles Mississippi. He graduated from Ole Miss journalism school.

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