Sandlapper Society

An Unlikely Friendship

by Margaret O’Shea

At 88, judges Sol Blatt Jr. and Matthew Perry Jr. are still holding court. And they’re still holding onto a valued friendship with each other.

The month may pass with little note for most, but August is a touchstone for two of South Carolina’s federal judges who were both born in its scorching heat in 1921. 

From one perspective, Matthew J. Perry Jr. (pictured below) and Sol Blatt Jr. (left) were born in the same state, yet in separate worlds that were crafted to collide as little as possible. They grew to be men in a society that defined them by their differences. But friends don’t dwell on differences, and the birthdays that fall so close in time underscore how much these men have in common beyond the unwieldy title of “Senior U.S. District Judge.”

“We have lived through the same periods of history, known many of the same people and had some of the same experiences in life. We remember many of the same things,” Judge Perry says. That circumstances caused them to view it all from different vantage points is just a fact of life.

“Relationships between people do take time to grow, and ours is no exception. It takes time to reach a perspective. Gradually, over time, as we interacted, we both developed attitudes of trust and respect, and I think it is fair to say we are personal friends.”

Judge Blatt says of Perry, “I love Matthew. I respect and admire him greatly. He is my friend. I enjoy the time I am able to spend with him.”

At 88, although Blatt lives in Charleston and Perry in Columbia, it might seem they should have plenty of time to spend together. They don’t. Both could have retired years ago on full salary, but chose to keep working every day. They continue to preside over cases and maintain busy schedules. On weekday mornings, Perry drives to the new federal courthouse in Columbia that is named for him. Blatt drives to one in Charleston that predates himself and Perry both.

Their birthday wishes are usually expressed from one office telephone to the other, which does not diminish the wry humor that underscores them. Perry has seniority because he was born first by 17 days, but concedes that Blatt has seniority in the federal court. He became a U.S. District judge in 1971, eight years before Perry’s appointment. Any friendly banter about seniority is moot among equals in rank, a status hardly predictable that sultry summer when they entered a world steeped in inequities.

Perry was born in Columbia on August 3, 1921, and named for his father, a World War I veteran. Matthew James Perry Sr. was a tailor in the Waverly community, where African Americans lived and worked. Within the next few years, Jennie Lyles Perry gave birth to another son and a daughter.

Blatt was born in Barnwell on August 20, 1921, and also named for his father, a lawyer destined for prominence locally and statewide. Solomon Blatt Sr. was the son of Jewish Russian immigrants whose industriousness provided him a college and legal education. The son was called “Sol” as his own son would be, although he was simply “Junior” to many people in Barnwell. Sol Sr. and Ethel Green had no more children.

The Perry family was drastically affected by a hidden enemy that came home from the war with Matthew Sr.— lungs damaged by mustard gas. He struggled with tuberculosis that required long stays in the Veterans’ Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. Jennie Perry and the children lived with relatives there and in Virginia during his absences, and she supported them however she could. She was a seamstress, domestic worker, dry cleaner’s clerk, and her eldest child’s first model of earning one’s way in the world.

Matthew Jr. was 12 when his father died. The family returned to Columbia, where they lived with Jennie’s father and stepmother. Perry’s grandfather, William Lyles, was a brakeman on the Southern Railroad throughout the Great Depression. They lived in neither poverty nor wealth, but Lyles owned their home on Washington Street and he had a car.

The family also lived by his rules. They went to Zion Baptist Church whenever the doors were open and all the Perry children were baptized at an early age. Deacon Lyles did not approve of “activities that, in his opinion, became the downfall of many people,” his grandson recalls, among them drinking, smoking, cursing and hanging out on street corners. While young Matthew lived with his grandfather, he was expected home by sundown. All the Perry children had chores after school and they later had part-time or summer jobs for pay.

The year Perry’s father died, young Sol Blatt was witnessing his own father’s launch into a legendary political life. The elder Blatt’s law practice, started in 1917, was doing well and he had just been elected to the first of many terms in the state House of Representatives. He would serve in the House 54 years, 33 of them as Speaker, one of South Carolina’s most powerful positions.

There was no prohibition against dual office holding until 1948 and during some of those years Sol Sr. also served on the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees and Barnwell’s public school board.

As a result, young Sol Jr. met the politically powerful, including governors and statesmen. At first, he saw them only as his father’s friends. Only later did he realize that most South Carolinians knew these people only from the news.

At 15, his high school class visited the State House and young Sol was invited to the rostrum. His speech was brief: “I sure am glad to be up here.”

There was little doubt about Sol Blatt Jr.’s future. He would go to USC like his father, then to law school as his father had done. He too would be a lawyer in Barnwell.

It was not that simple for young Perry, who offered at one time to quit school and get a full-time job so his mother wouldn’t have to work so hard. Her reaction was unequivocal. “She came down on me in such a fashion,” he recalls, “that I was sure she would kill me.” William Lyles concurred. His own education was minimal and he wanted more for his grandchildren.

Young Perry graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and began making plans for college with no clear idea what he wanted to do. He enrolled in what was then called the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina in Orangeburg to study business administration.  

World War II interrupted plans for both Perry and Blatt.

When he graduated from USC in 1941, Blatt enlisted in the U.S. Navy with an officer’s commission. He served on a destroyer that escorted liberty ships to Europe and participated in anti-submarine warfare.

Blatt served five years and came out a lieutenant. Not long afterward, he received his law degree.

Matthew Perry was drafted into the Army a year after Pearl Harbor. He served in England, France and Germany in a unit that reminded him of home: the enlisted men were black and all the officers were white. Perry was assigned menial labor.

Disparities accepted as normal “because that was all that I knew as a child” bothered him more as a young man. Perry’s military experiences crystallized concerns that first welled in his teens when he worked outside Waverly and saw its contrasts to other neighborhoods.

One Army incident particularly rankled. On a weekend pass from basic training, he had to change trains. The station had a sit-down restaurant for whites and what Perry calls a “feeding area” for blacks— a window where they could order and pay for food, but with nowhere to eat. Unable to get inside, a group of soldiers stood in a cold drizzle. They could see into the restaurant, where some Italian war prisoners ate with their captors. Young waitresses clearly found these men “interesting,” but that’s not what bothered Perry.

“We already were at war with Italy, and here were these enemy soldiers being treated better than we Americans who were getting ready to lay down our lives. I could feel outrage rising in me. But what could I do about it? Nothing.”

He began to think more seriously about a legal career in which he might make a difference. He had never met any black lawyers; however, there was no law school in South Carolina for non-whites. That was about to change.

When Perry returned home in 1946, he couldn’t go back to school until the fall term began. In the interim, two highly publicized civil rights cases were heard in federal court at Columbia, one of them concerning another African American’s attempt to enter USC’s law school. Perry attended the trials, where he did meet two black lawyers, one of them local— Harold Boulware. The other was Thurgood Marshall, a future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and one of Perry’s mentors.

The court ordered South Carolina either to admit the plaintiff to USC or establish a comparable law school for blacks. The Legislature established the separate school at Perry’s college, now South Carolina State University. He was in its second graduating class.

Several more years would pass before Perry and Blatt met and even more before they got to know each other. Perry was a young civil rights lawyer with occasion to appear in court in Barnwell County. Sol Blatt Jr. was a major player in the legal community there and a member of the USC board of trustees— an appointment given him at 25 when dual office-holding was ruled unconstitutional, forcing his lawmaker father off the board.

Perry and Blatt were never legal adversaries, but they did size each other up. The measure would grow into a mutual respect.

Blatt was appointed a federal judge in 1971. Perry was appointed in 1995. It is the context in which their friendship has grown. In some ways, it seems an unlikely pairing. Outside the courtroom, Blatt is an avid fisherman and golfer. Perry never developed an interest in either. They have a mutual interest in USC football, although Blatt’s is more exuberant— so much so that he’s worn in public a gag gift from one of his sons, a suit made from curtains with a Gamecock motif. Blatt’s late wife Carolyn couldn’t stand them and took them down, never expecting they’d be seen again and certainly not by a stadium full of people.

The judges don’t sit together at football games. Blatt usually goes with one or more of his three children. Perry usually goes with Columbia lawyer I.S. Leevy Johnson, who also accompanies Perry to S.C. State University’s games.

Another colleague, U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie, has attended judicial gatherings with Perry and Blatt, who enjoy each other’s company through the evening meal and sometimes beyond. Blatt, however, does not wind down while the night is young. He is a good dancer and enjoys music.

“When we go to these judge’s meetings, we go to dinner and I’m about asleep in my soup, and when we come back Judge Blatt says, ‘Let’s stop in for a little drink,’” Currie said. If there’s a band, Blatt often takes over the drums.

He and his wife played in a local band for years, he on the drums and she on piano. So Blatt doesn’t mind asking a drummer he never met before to take a little break. Then he busts loose.

Few people who know Perry can imagine him taking the stage like that, but he did turn down an offer to sing with a Cab Calloway backup group— “The Cavaliers.” Perry met these brothers while in the Army, but he opted for law school instead of a musical career.

Although they enjoy dinner and drinks over stories when they can, the relationship between Perry and Blatt consists less of doing things together than of being there for each other. And if they haven’t talked in a while, they definitely will around their birthdays and it will be as if they never skipped a beat.

You know— like friends.

* * *

In her 37 years as a journalist, Margaret N. O’Shea frequently writes about South Carolina court cases and legal affairs.

This article is sponsored by South Carolina Association for Justice and McNair Law Firm, P.A.

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