Monday, October 4, 2010

Overcoming family tragedy and segregation's insults, Salmond shapes life of service

Jasper Salmond has spent his professional life as a listener, a courtly man willing to consider all sides of an issue and tease out a possible compromise.

So when Salmond reached for the microphone during a mid-September Richland 1 school board meeting, a hush fell over the room as if the audience, restive and spilling out into the foyer, had joined in a swift, collective intake of breath.

bc alumni salmond jasper

Jaspar Salmond on the Benedict College campus Friday. Salmond is retiring from the Richland 1 School Board this year.
- Tim Dominick /The State

The vice chairman of the Richland 1 school board, who turns 80 this year (2010), is known for his deliberative manner and measured speech. But on this evening, Salmond spoke with some urgency, requesting the board restore longevity and incentive pay to the district's bus drivers, cafeteria workers, office staff and other classified employees.

Five members swiftly concurred, with one member abstaining. A cheer rose from workers who had gathered to protest the cuts, made during the district's drive to balance its shrinking annual budget.

As jubilant employees spilled out onto the lawn and sidewalks of the administration building, it was clear that Salmond was the man of the hour.

"We LOVE Jasper Salmond," one woman beamed.

Salmond was "the point person" in restoring the $900,000 line item to the budget, said Peggy Mattie, a secretary with the district's Advanced Academic Programs division. "He was the only one who actually listened."

Invariably polite, keenly modest, this lifelong listener now finds the spotlight turned on him as he retires this month after 21 years on the Richland 1 board and even more decades in close association with the district as a teacher and administrator.

The district plans to honor him Oct. 12 with a public reception.

Tuesday he will be honored at a private reception at the Koger Center for the Arts as one of 12 South Carolinians to be featured on the 2011 South Carolina African American History Calendar. Last week, Salmond, a 1954 graduate of Benedict College, was inducted into the National Black College Hall of Fame during splashy ceremonies in Atlanta.

The fanfare is nice, but Salmond prefers to focus on what pleases him the most – encouraging young people to achieve their potential, even when they aren't sure exactly how to tackle obstacles.

"I see children first," he said. "I see people who are having difficulties, struggling, and those who, for example, are working against odds. I find pleasure in helping them."

A devastating loss, early anger

There was a time when a younger, more impulsive Salmond took little pleasure in the larger society around him, when his frustration at the inequities of the segregated system of the 1940s and 1950s threatened to consume him.

"I was angry," he said.

That quiet fury was rooted, in part, in a senseless act of violence years earlier that had taken the life of his father.

In December 1931, just a year and a half after his son Jasper was born, James Salmond, a gardener, was walking his bicycle across a Camden street when he was struck down by a young white man who had deliberately plowed his car into him.

It was a case of mistaken identity. The white man had apparently argued with another man who resembled James Salmond.

"He had intended to hit another black man who had allegedly done something earlier or said something earlier in a school situation," Salmond recalled. "Because it was intentional, and yet unintentional, because it was the wrong person, there was no inquest, so the families suffered through it."

That incident, plus the continuing indignities of segregated train cars, movie theaters and hospitals, caused the young Salmond to flare up at white authorities and rail against the system, his wife, Thelma Brooks Salmond recalled.

"I think he was angry up until our son was born, and our son was born in '57," said Thelma Salmond. On more than one occasion, she found herself stepping in to defuse a tense situation.

"She saved my life many times," he said.

But Salmond looks back at the searing societal experiences that shaped him and considers that his early life prepared him to become the man people have turned to in developing long-term strategies to solve problems.

"That has been as much a focus of my life as anything," he said, "to see things happen, wonder why, and on the other hand, being at a point where you could do something about it."

Possessing qualities €to become a good man'

After the death of his father, Jasper's mother, Dora, then 23, was left with two young children to raise, a daunting task because she had little education and few prospects beyond domestic labor. She never remarried, but the family, including Jasper's older brother Willie, had a three-room home, just completed by their father, and lots of help from their Camden neighbors and relatives.

"Mom had a third-grade education, but she was the greatest economist I have ever known," Salmond recalled last week. His mother earned three dollars working for a wealthy white family, a salary supplemented by gardening and canning and, later, factory work.

"We grew up in poverty, but we didn't know that we were poor because we were richly blessed with so many neighbors who cared," he said.

Salmond remembered lean times and patched overalls but as he wound through Camden's segregated school system – first in a one-room school that housed seven grades and then in a newly constructed Rosenwald School – he discovered teachers who were not willing to let him compromise on his education.

In second grade, his teacher pulled him aside and told him she was going to make him repeat the grade. "I know what you can do, but you aren't doing it," she told him.
He excelled at Jackson High School, in academics and in sports, said his basketball coach and mentor Thomas E. McLester, known as "Daddy Mac" to Salmond and the other children.

"Jasper was one of my honor students; Jasper was one of my basketball players; but most of all, from early life, he was just a gentleman," McLester, 98, said Sunday. "He had all the qualities that would contribute to being a good man."

Salmond graduated from Jackson High School as valedictorian, with college offers but only $42 to his name.

It was spring 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court decided the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturned separate but equal schools. But there was little impetus in South Carolina to abide by the new ruling or alter the entrenched segregation that marked the lives of blacks and whites.

The protected world of Benedict College

Salmond went north, to Montauk Point, N.Y., to work for the summer and wrote Benedict College asking about qualifications for admission. After sending his high school transcript, he had a scholarship offer. Tuition was $50, and by December, he was broke.

So while he took a regular load of classes, Salmond raked leaves, worked in the school cafeteria and served barbeque at a drive-in restaurant, the Pampered Pig, on Fort Jackson Boulevard to make ends meet.

It was at Benedict that he honed his academic credentials and met his future wife, Thelma Brooks, of Blackville, in their junior years. She, a sister and cousin were new transfers from Voorhees College – "Back then, we traveled in packs," she laughed – and all three young women were amazed to see a tall, good-looking young man stroll into class wearing a suit, shirt, tie and shined shoes.

"I had never seen that before," Thelma Salmond recalled. "We thought he was the teacher." She wasted no time in expressing her interest, persuading her cousin to pass the young Salmond a note that read: "I know someone who is interested in you." Even though he had a girlfriend at the time, Jasper Salmond responded quickly, without even a glance to the back of the room where the girls sat: "I'm interested too."

Inside the gates of Benedict it was a protected world, with a focus on academic studies and spiritual development. President J.A. Bacoats routinely strolled the campus at night, talking to students and reminding courting couples when it was time to retire for the night.

"Benedict prepared us for life, and that is why we are so committed to it," said Salmond, who was student body president and graduated magna cum laude. "Had it not been for Benedict, I don't know where I might be."

Even as barriers to integration were slowly falling around the country, in South Carolina, nothing much had changed.

"Once we left the campus, we were fearful," Salmond recalled. "When we walked to the theater, there were cars that would drive slowly behind us. We'd think they were police cars, detective cars. It was almost like harassment. It was intimidating, and that went on for years."

They sat in the balconies of movie theaters and made a point to ride the bus back to campus rather than walk home in the darkness.

Thelma Brooks and Jasper Salmond graduated at 10 a.m. May 25, 1954, and at 2 p.m. that afternoon were married in Benedict's Antisdel Chapel. They found teaching positions quickly and took advantage of another segregation-era program that, ironically, benefited more black South Carolinians than whites.

Because USC was off-limits to blacks students, the state paid for African-Americans to attend Ivy League and Big 10 schools to further their education. The Salmonds went to Columbia University and Atlanta University during summer breaks, and Jasper Salmond eventually earned a master's from Columbia University.

Jasper Salmond had taught only 25 days at Carver Elementary School when he was drafted and spent several years in the the military. But upon his return he rose through the ranks of the old Columbia Public School system, now Richland 1, to become a principal.

The Salmonds raised two children, son Jeryl, a senior vice president with Morgan Stanley/Smith Barney, and Jenita Salmond Belton, co-owner of a hair salon. They have nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

In 1972, he took a position with Wilbur Smith Associates, a Columbia transportation and infrastructure company where he worked in a variety of positions on domestic and overseas projects, working to raise awareness in Columbia of global issues.

Over the years, Salmond has influenced hundreds of students in Richland 1 and at Benedict College, garnering awards and recognition along the way.

Jamie Devine, who now sits on the Richland 1 board with Salmond, remembers meeting him as a freshman student in the 1990s. When Devine pondered a run for the school board, he sought the advice of his family – and Jasper Salmond.

"He said, if this is what you want to do, do your research first, see who else is running and make sure you have your family bases covered," Devine said. He reminded Devine that serving on the school board is fulfilling but not glamorous.

Time and time again, Salmond said he returns to that old adage: "Service is the rent we pay for our space on earth."

"The service itself is that which is appreciated by others and not by yourself," he said. "I do things because it is the fair thing to do."

Peggy Mattie, the Richland 1 employee who called on Salmond to help restore the classified workers' pay, said she knew Salmond would be willing to assist because she had seen him interact with the district and its students for two dozen years.

Her office holds recognition ceremonies for gifted students annually, and she said Salmond was always present with an encouraging word for the student.

"I can tell you from a department standpoint, he has never ever failed to be at one of these recognition ceremonies," Mattie said. "He is always there for children."
"That's what I always liked about him," she said. "He just seemed to care."

Source: The State Newspaper