Bahai News -- The Post and Courier - The ripple effect Story last updated at 9:25 a.m. Sunday, February 2, 2003

The ripple effect

Influencing the tide of history

BY STEPHANIE HARVIN Of The Post and Courier Staff

Philip Simmons and Louis G. Gregory each has written a page in Charleston's history. Simmons' wrought-iron gates are now symbols used to promote the city as a gracious place to live. He has been called a "Living National Treasure" by the Smithsonian and is invited all over the country to speak.

CLAIRE GREENE
Philip Simmons is considered one of the premier artists in Charleston. His iron work is in the Smithsonian.
Gregory's contribution is less well known outside the Bah·'Ė faith, yet he was one of the first black members of the faith's National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada. He traveled the Southeast between the 1920s and 1950s, speaking out for unity of races at a time when it was dangerous to do so.

Both men have exhibits honoring them in celebration of Black History Month. A photographic exhibit of Simmons' gates returned to the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston and opened Thursday. A calendar that includes his original drawings and pictures of his gates goes on sale through the Philip Simmons Foundation.

The Louis G. Gregory Museum opens Feb. 8 at 2 Desportes Court when members of the Bah·'Ė faith from around the world gather to honor therestoration of Gregory's childhood home. The rejuvenation of the house has been a slow process, one that has taken the local Bah·'Ė community more than 14 years.

KEEPER OF THE GATE

"People always ask me what it feels like to be a national treasure," says Simmons.

"I tell them that it feels the same as when I was working in my shop. Once I was the youngest blacksmith in Charleston, then I was the only one. Now, there are lots of trainees who are excited about the old art."

At nearly 91, Simmons has been retired from his blacksmith forge at 30-1/2 Blake St. since the early '80s when his heart began giving him problems. But in retirement, he found another life in teaching and talking about his craft, with a little bit of Charleston history thrown in. He will tell listeners that he apprenticed to Peter Simmons (no relation) when he was 13. Work consisted of shoeing horses and making wagon wheels. By the time he was 18, he took over the forge on a percentage basis.

"When the automobile was replacing the horse, people would ask me what I was going to do for a living," says Simmons. "I told them I would find something, but it almost put me under."

That's when he began to repair the existing old gates in town, and then to create them himself.

"Jack Krawcheck let me build my first gate in 1948 for the fence behind his store. It opened out onto the parking lot. It was done the old-time way with the old-time methods."

Simmons says he remembers gathering scrap iron from deteriorating buildings to build the gate. He learned a lot, made a lifelong friend, and began to follow a dream.

That dream has taken his work as far as the Smithsonian, where one of his gates is prominently displayed. A special commission put a freestanding gazebo into the Charleston International Airport.

Simmons was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 1994. He was presented the Order of the Palmetto by then-Gov. David Beasley in 1998. In addition, in May 2001, he received the Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Governor's Award for a lifetime achievement in the arts.

The photographic exhibit was conceived by the Philip Simmons Foundation as a way to celebrate his 81st birthday in 1993. Claire Greene researched and photographed Simmons' work for a year before the exhibit opened at Avery Research Center. The exhibit has since been as far away as the MusČes Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Belgium. The latter was a big thrill for Greene. It was the first time she had traveled abroad.

"His work appeals to all segments of the community," says Greene, pointing out that not all of his work has been for wealthy clients. Examples of his work can be found on Smith Street and South Street. As she worked on the project, she began to understand what he was trying to do.

"He's so connected to the area. You can see his work as an artist and as a church elder. The gates are full of the flora and fauna of the area. He's very connected to the community. Wherever he goes, people stop to talk with him.

"It was the beauty of the work that attracted me to the designs."

CHILDHOOD HOME

Henry Wigfall Jr. was at a city tax auction in 1989 when he recognized the address of the childhood home of Gregory at 2 Desportes Court. It was near his grandmother's house, and he knew the history. He put in a bid, but the owner didn't accept it, so he spread the word about the property through the Spiritual Assembly of Charleston.

A grass-roots effort was begun to raise money through the Bah·'Ė faith to preserve the home. The assembly came up with the $32,000 purchase price, but the renovation would take another 14 years.

"The total purchase price and renovation has been about $80,000," says Wigfall. "I've done most of the contracting work, getting people to do things on the house."

Wigfall envisioned the house as a place to preserve the memory of a man who had contributed to the history of his faith.

Born in 1874, Gregory grew up in Charleston as the son of freed slaves and attended Simonton Elementary and Avery Normal Institute. He knew his grandmother well, a woman whose faith sustained her even after her husband was lynched and she was nearly murdered with him. She encouraged the young Gregory to have faith and patience with people, says Jacquelyn Jones, chairwoman of the Charleston Spiritual Assembly.

Gregory worked his way through Fisk University and Howard University's School of Law by working as a tailor and through odd jobs and scholarships. By 1907, he was licensed to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. As a successful black man, he was recognized by W.E.B. DuBois as one of the "talented Tenth" a term that applied to the small number of educated, talented black men of the time who were capable of effecting positive change for the black community.

It was also in 1907 that he encountered the Bah·'Ė faith and heard the message of unity and oneness, that all religions and races of the world were manifestations of God. By 1909, he embraced the tenants of the faith and in 1911, traveled to Egypt to meet Abdu'l-Bayha, the son of the founder. In 1912, Gregory was elected to the nine-member Bah·'Ė national administrative body and was elected 15 more times before declining health curtailed his activities.

Gregory curtailed his legal practice to travel and teach the principles of racial unity. In the process, he visited Tuskegee Institute and became friends with Dr. George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. At a time when it was increasingly dangerous to talk about race, Gregory lectured to white and black audiences and married a white woman named Louisa Mathew. The spiritual distinction of "Hand of the Cause" was conferred on him, an honor given only to 47 people in the history of the Bah·'Ė faith.

Because money for the Gregory home trickled in slowly, the work on the two-story house was done in stages. Downstairs will be a repository of books, speeches and certificates that have been preserved by Avery Research Center and ones that have come from Radio Bah·'Ė and the Louis Gregory Institute in Hemingway, S.C. Jones and Wigfall both say that scholars at Avery Research Center have been involved in the design of the displays.

"We have a small assembly here in Charleston, but we hope to have the museum open from 12 to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday," says Jones. "His life has had a ripple effect on others."

Stephanie Harvin writes features. Contact her at 937-5701 or sharvin@postandcourier.com.

©Copyright 2003, The Post and Courier (Charlston, SC, USA)

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