As a military family, we were frequently on the move, to various locations around the country and the world, yet we never considered calling any of those places home once my service commitment had ended. Even when we arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, the location that would be my final assignment on active duty, we felt strongly that we were headed back home to Texas immediately following my retirement.
Coincidentally, maybe even miraculously, all our home affairs seemed to come together while in Charleston. With relative ease, we managed to find good schools for our two younger sons to attend, an often-difficult task given each of them have Autism Spectrum Disorder. Also, our eldest son, who is also Autistic, managed to graduate high school and find a nice full-time job, that paid well, and provided good benefits. Even more, our daughter, who returned home and was attempting to get back on her feet to independence, met a young man who she eventually married. Needless to say, it appeared as though we might be calling Charleston home, after all. Except, it would be misfortune, and not good fortune, that played a major factor in our decision to stay in the area.
In 2015, tragedy would befall the city of Charleston and the surrounding Low Country when a young man, armed with a gun, would enter the downtown A.M.E. Church, and open fire on a bible study group. Nine lives would be taken that evening in an act of violence fueled by ignorant hatred toward African Americans.
At the time, racial tensions in our country were at a boil in places like Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown, and in Baltimore, Maryland, with the death of Freddie Gray. Full-blown riots and unrest were taking place in both locations, and now a blatant hate crime had just taken place in the community where we lived. But, the way this community would respond to tragedy would be a far cry from that of Ferguson and Baltimore.
Instead, on June 21, 2015, only a few days following the shooting, a crowd of over ten thousand people (some sources estimate fifteen thousand), gathered at each end of the famed landmark Arthur Ravanel Bridge in a show of solidarity against the motive behind the violence. Each group walked toward each other, meeting in the middle of the bridge, and began shaking hands and embracing each other. Everyone then held hands, until there was an unbroken chain across the entire bridge. It’s an act that became known as the “Bridge to Peace” event.
Those in the crowd described it as “Awesome” and “Emotional.” Those who watched the crowd from a distance, could not put into words nor describe what they had seen. Only that they were in awe, and that it was a powerful moment to witness.
Although, I personally was not able to attend the bridge event, I did go to the site of the incident to take photos and document some of what I saw. The outpouring of support for the church by the surrounding community, the country, and even the world, was overwhelming. People were hugging, and crying, and there were expressions on some that I could only describe as confused or disoriented.
There was one photograph I took that I thought captured something very important. Two young ladies, one white and one black, standing side by side. They were there together, taking in the scene, and talking amongst themselves about who knows what. They were acquainted, though. Friends, maybe.
The photo I got of the two of them will always remind me that despite the violence that takes place in this country, where race is a factor, that we have come a long way. So many things were apparent in this moment. Two women of different races could meet and mourn together, openly and without fear of scrutiny. They, to me, represented the entire crowd of mourners which had been made up of people of different races, colors, genders, and creeds.
Our family was fortunate that many of our home affairs came together the way they did when we arrived in Charleston. In the end, however, after witnessing Charleston’s response to a tragedy motivated by hate, something other parts of the country were collapsing under, I proposed to my wife that we should consider calling Charleston home. She agreed and we’ve been here ever since.