The Magazine of South Carolina

Family Ties

A Visit With the Campbells of Hilton Head Island


Head of the class: a smiling Morris Campbell

Emory Campbell, Penn Center executive director

A Campbell family photograph

by Don McKinney

"Family values" perfectly explains the remarkable success attained by the Campbell family of Hilton Head. Reginald and Sarah Campbell had 12 children and managed to send 6 of them to college. Most are now in their 40s and 50s, and every one is a success story. African Americans who can trace their roots to the Civil War and beyond, the children are proud of their parents and grandparents—and proud of each other.

"We were always taught to look out for one another, help one another," Herb Campbell says. Except for Hattie, who lives in Boston, and Leroy, who died last year, the children all live on a 35-acre tract of land in Spanish Wells, part of an African American community that has flourished for centuries. The Campbells meet once a month to talk about what they are doing, discuss family business and reinforce the ties that have held them together for so long.

Although they are all well known and respected on the island, a few of them are more visible than the others. Emory, 58, serves as executive director of Penn Center, Inc., on nearby St. Helena Island. Once the only school for black children in the region, it is now a community resource center.

In addition to keeping alive the Gullah traditions, the center devotes itself to training young people in such skills as weaving and grass basket making, teaching farmers to use the latest agricultural methods, showing local residents how to take advantage of the laws about such things as loans and taxes and helping them set up small businesses.

Irvin Campbell is executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Hilton Head. Its multimillion-dollar clubhouse is scheduled to open this spring. "The work is getting harder and the responsibilities greater," Irv says with a grin, "but we’re proud of what we’re doing. If you can look at your face in the mirror in the morning and feel proud of what you did the day before, you are a success."

Morris, one of the youngest at 48, is Beaufort County’s deputy administrator for community services. He oversees the departments responsible for library services, recreation, disabilities and mental retardation, alcohol and drugs, staff services and a program designed to help young people in trouble.

Melvin, a math instructor at Hilton Head High School, was named teacher of the year in 1998. Just back from playing in a basketball tournament in Florida, he grins wryly at the outcome. "We played three games and lost ’em all," he says. "I guess it was a learning experience."

"More like a vacation," Morris corrects. They all laugh.

Regina Ragland, one of three girls in the family, is coordinator of an after-school program and attendance clerk at the high school’s front office. She does a good bit of unofficial counseling of "the ones who will listen." She says, "Mama always told us that ‘manners will get you where money won’t,’ but it’s hard to convince kids of that today."

David is an easygoing man of 56. Like his brothers, he stands well over six feet. (Being in a room full of Campbells can be a humbling experience.) David is retired from a career in the Air Force and drives a school bus to keep himself busy.

Herb, also retired from the Air Force, works as a deputy administrative assistant at the Department of Social Services in Beaufort.

The rest of the family include Ben, a retired disc jockey; George, the oldest at 67; Carol Oriage; and Hattie, who works at the statehouse in Boston.

The 12 children have 27 children of their own. Most have attended or are attending college. While their parents hope the children will come home, they realize opportunities are limited on this small island. Still, the younger Campbells reflect the legacy of their parents and grandparents, who placed education right after family loyalty and closeness as the most important value.

Reginald and Sarah were schoolteachers on Hilton Head. They each had only a few years of college and lacked proper teaching credentials, so when requirements were tightened in 1948, they had to retire. But they sent as many of their children as they could to college. "We had great support from our older brothers and sisters," Emory adds.

The values instilled in these children are still very much alive, although Morris fears "our generation may be the last one on Hilton Head to really foster those traditions that were passed on to them. The kids today, even our kids, listen but don’t really seem to know what we’re talking about." Emory agrees.

Irv has more serious problems with the children (ages 6–18) he supervises at the Boys and Girls Club. "I use a fishing analogy to explain what it’s like to get to those kids. You can’t pull in a big fish if you’re fightin’ with that fish, because the line is going to pop. You let them run awhile, get themselves tired, and then maybe you can talk to them."

In addition to family loyalty and education, their parents and grandparents insisted on discipline. Herb remembers, "My grandmother, Mama Julia, used to teach in our little schoolhouse, and I would meet her up at the fork of the road to walk to school in the morning. If I wasn’t there she would go on without me, and boy, did she walk fast! I’d have to run like crazy to catch up with her, because if she got there first and rang that school bell, I was late. And everybody that was late got whipped with a switch on the hand. I learned my lesson."

"Mama Julia was my teacher through the fifth grade," Regina says. "She was the teacher for most of the kids around here. But I didn’t get any favoritism from her. If I’d complain about one of the other kids, she’d say, ‘Don’t care what somebody else calls you. You know who you are.’ "

Mama Julia and Papa Solomon were their father’s parents. Papa was both a schoolteacher and a minister. Their mother’s parents were Rosa and Perry Williams. After serving in World War I, Perry became a civil servant in Savannah. When he retired he became a house painter and a maker of cast nets for shrimping. "Every community had its net maker," Emory says. "After he retired he used to sit out on the porch with a big cigar in his mouth and make nets. He always had cookies and candy in his pocket for the kids."

"Grandma Rosa was always proud of her family, regardless," Regina says, "but she was very strong on discipline. There was never any discussion with her on issues. It was her way."

"And she did have help," Emory says. "The whole community looked after you. If you did something wrong on the island, word got back to your parents before you did. If you’d say you didn’t do it, Mama would say, ‘Are you calling Mrs. Jones a liar?’ There was only one right answer to that question."

The parents emphasized work and the importance of always doing a good job. "Everybody had a chore," Herb explains, "and we used to rotate them. Everybody wanted the living room, because kids weren’t allowed in there, so it was always clean.

"We also did laundry, ironing, yard work, helped with the farming, brought in wood, cleaned the house."

"Mama always said you do a good job," David remembers, "no matter what you’re doing. If you’re going to be a dishwasher, be the best dishwasher in the world."

The importance of religion was another value that was impressed on them. It stuck, but they didn’t always seem to appreciate it at the time. "Sunday was a very special day for us," Regina remembers. "You couldn’t play games. You just had to sit on the porch and look at each other."

"Couldn’t even pick up a ball," Emory recalls, smiling.

"I liked it," David says, grinning. "No work. No scrubbing the porch. We went to Sunday school and church and took it easy all day."

There was a mandatory study period for the children every night after supper, and no radio or TV was allowed until everyone had finished. "If I had finished my homework I had to read anyway," Herb remembers.

"Or we had to help each other," says Melvin. "I had to help Ben, and if I couldn’t make him understand something I’d get a whipping and he’d get a whipping. Both of us would be sittin’ there with tears running down our cheeks. Then our parents would go over what we’d read and ask questions about it. You learned or else."

"And they made us watch the news every night," Herb says. "We had to know what was happening in the world."

They laugh now about their strict upbringing, but they know how important it was in their lives, and regret today’s children aren’t being raised the same way. "We listened to our parents," Herb says. "We didn’t have television telling us something else about life. There’s too much out there now competing against your philosophy."

"TV changed the playing field," Melvin says. "We glamorize athletes. You can’t sell kids on a four-year college education when they think they can make it so easily in sports. They don’t sell values on television. They sell everything else, and kids buy what they see."

"We used to sit around as a family and talk at night," Herb adds. "Tell stories. Daddy was a great one for jokes and riddles. He also had stories to explain how places got their names. There was a boat in this harbor, he’d say, and a lady named Anna fell overboard. Everybody started yelling, ‘Save Anna!’ ‘Save Anna!’ So they called it Savannah."

"But the TV is the surrogate parent now," Morris says sadly. "It is the storyteller and the entertainer. Kids don’t accept their parents’ traditions the way we did."

Like their parents, this generation of Campbells has a lot to teach us all. They have kept their eyes on the really important things in life and have lived the values passed down to them.

The Gullah Heritage Tour, owned and operated by the Campbell family, leaves the Gullah Market on Route 278 Saturday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. It’s a fascinating look at the is-land’s past. For reservations, call (843) 681-7066.

Don McKinney is a writer on Hilton Head Island.


* Bethea, Jordan & Griffin, P.A.
* Hargray Communications
* Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association
* Palmetto Electric Cooperative, Inc.

Home Page | Back to "Sandlapper Illustrated" Contents