“I remember the bulldozers cutting the streets,” said David Drayton Junior, better known as DD. “I used to sit on top of the bulldozers when they weren’t clearing the land.” The land he’s talking about is the Virginia Heights Subdivision in Georgetown County.
The remarkable story of Virginia Heights takes place around the same time playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s riveting play, ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ was hitting the big screen in 1962.
Hansberry’s story of an African-American family’s struggles for justice and equality was fictional, but the story of Virginia Heights is real. The setting does not take place on the Southside of Chicago, rather, Maryville, South Carolina. It is mostly about success and triumph, but mainly about self-sufficiency. Since February is Black History Month, I can think of no better time to tell it.
Like, Carl Hansberry (Hansberry’s birth father and successful real estate broker) who wanted to improve his family’s lot by buying a house in a white subdivision on the Southside of Chicago in 1938, only to incur the wrath of his white neighbors, David Drayton Sr. branched out where few people of his race had gone before him.
You may recall that the protagonist in Lorraine’s play, the Younger Family, having come into some money, wanted to buy a house in the suburbs to escape their cramped inner-city conditions. But they soon learned from the antagonist (the local neighborhood improvement association of their new community) that they were neither wanted nor welcomed.
Likewise, in 1962 David Drayton had a dream of leaving his cramped conditions in Georgetown and moving to Maryville. True, there were virtually no blacks living in this part of Maryville then, and later there was an ugly incident. Still, his Virginia Heights dream became a pleasant reality. It proved that in the 1960s, blacks and whites could live harmoniously in Georgetown.
Virginia Heights was not the first self-sufficient black community in Georgetown County; that honor belongs to the residents of Sandy Island. Nevertheless, both communities proved to be quite resilient. They resisted the temptation to sell property that had been in their families since their Emancipation and travel north seeking a better life — especially during the Great Depression.
Since their ancestors were ripped from Africa and brought here to work the land, it’s easy to see why the ratio of blacks to whites in Georgetown County rose as high as nine to one. Yet those blacks who acquired land could not have known in the 1800s how valuable their land would be if they could only hold on to it.
It is safe to assume that if the thousands of descendants of enslaved people had maintained their land, particularly along the Waccamaw Neck region, they would be better off today financially. But segregation’s brutal unkindness left most of them with a disease called – “possibility blindness.”
However, this was not the case with David Drayton Sr. Those who knew him perhaps knew him as one of the legendary principals of Howard High School, the renowned historian, the Chairman of the C.A.A.H.O (Committee for African-American History Observances), the founder of Gullah Roots Tour, the devoted church member of Bethel AME, and the man who selflessly delayed his retirement to help smooth the transition of consolidating Georgetown’s two high schools.
But who knew that he was also an astute businessman? Who knew that he was the embodiment of what W.E.B Du Bois called — the “talented-tenth?”
Born in 1926, like many blacks after and before Emancipation, David was given a hand up (not a handout) by his parents. His father, who himself had inherited land, left David and his two sisters property throughout Georgetown County.
“This property was held back for the children,” said DD. A portion of the property they inherited was in Maryville. For years, the property remained undeveloped. Perhaps it was because he saw how congested Waccamaw Neck was becoming, or maybe he just wanted to live in a residential area, but in 1962 David decided to move on his dream. He and his sisters agreed to use their property in Maryville for their dwelling.
“We were living in a two apartment cinder block dwelling on Cannon Street in Georgetown,” DD said. “It’s a good thing we were close with or next-door neighbors (Tommie and Mable Smith) because the wall that divided the apartments was so thin you could hear each other’s conversation. We didn’t have a telephone, but they did. When someone wanted to reach us, one of them would knock on the wall and yell for one of us.”
Although a respected principal and member of the community, David Drayton didn’t have enough room for his growing family. Nineteen sixty-two was nearly a decade after the famous Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision on desegregation, ‘Jim Crow’ was on its last breath, and David dreamed of a better life for his growing family.
“I saw him wanting to create a community to raise his family,” DD said. “He had property, and he collaborated with others who may have wanted the same thing — to create a community that was wholesome and conducive to raise their family.”
David was by no means wealthy, but he had something more valuable than money- property. He and his wife Dorthula pooled their resources and launched David’s plan to develop a subdivision. It would be named Virginia Heights after his beloved mother, Virginia Cruel Drayton.
When it was finally developed, nine acres of prime real estate meticulously planned were ready for those who wanted to join him. David reserved his lots for his closest friends and family members.
These friends included Robert and Joyce Patterson, Tommie and Mable Smith, Leroy and Charlesann Buttone, Pete and Mattie Hemingway, Lucius and Deloris McInnis, Charles and Deloris Knox, Cornelius and Esther Beck, Herbert and Edna Knox, Mickey and Mabel McKnight, John and Thelma Spears, and George and Claudette Wright.
In all, 15 new homes were built with the average cost being $15,000 (equivalent to $127,000 in today’s market.) Most were educators, and notable members of Georgetown’s middle class. “Every household had at least one parent who was a teacher,” said DD. There were doctors, dentists, administrators, coaches, librarians, morticians, business owners, and other professionals as well.
To ensure his property would not be diminished in value, certain conditions came with the lots. Homeowners were governed by a covenant and restriction clause in their contract. Homes were for residential purposes only, restricted to a single-family dwelling; no house could be used as a rental property, no outdoor plumbing, a noise ordinance, and the quality and workmanship of construction materials had to be at or above standards, were just some of the stipulations.
Mindful of the need to employ blacks during segregation, Drayton employed as many qualified African-Americans as he could for the construction of his subdivision. “All the people that worked on the homes were African-Americans,” said DD.
David worked with legendary contractors and craftsmen Sam Bonds, Nathan Brown, Sam Hudson, Bennie Dones, Sunny Reid, Shackleford, and a host of other black electricians, plumbers, carpenters, masonries, and skilled craftsmen.
The development of Virginia Heights further proves that blacks in Georgetown were more than ancillary laborers who toiled in the rice fields, instead, highly skilled builders who built much of the plantations and structures throughout this county.
“We moved into this house on November 23rd, 1963,” said Charlesann Buttone. “I remember because it was the day after President John F. Kennedy was shot.
Five years later, someone burned a cross on the lawn and shot a hole in my window. I called the police, but I don’t think it was any of my neighbors who did it.”
In 1968 she had become the first black principal of a predominantly white elementary school in the county. She believes it was most likely someone connected to one of her students, and so did the police.
Since then, people in Virginia Heights have lived together in harmony. Many of the original inhabitants have gone on to meet their makers. But the friendship and love they forged will always be remembered.
Opportunities for African-Americans to participate in the American Dream have increased exponentially since 1962. They can do things and go places they could only dream of then. Indeed many of Virginia Heights’ original member’s children and grandchildren are scattered across the diaspora.
Because of their parent’s dream of a better life for them, they’ve fared well. But as James Weldon Johnson, wrote – “Stony the road we trod, bitter the Chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died; yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to a place for which our fathers sighed? Less our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; may we forever stand, true to our God, and true to our native land.”