Jacob Martin can add his Nov. 8 placement on the Town of Bluffton’s Wall of Honor to the extensive list of awards recognizing his long life of public service.
Martin joins an impressive list of honorees such as Oscar Frazier, Sam Bennet, Jeffrey Robinowich, Michael C. Riley and Martin’s late wife, Ida Martin.
Born in Bluffton in 1928, he grew up on Calhoun Street in a family of 11 children – six girls and five boys. Martin was seventh in line.
He graduated from the Shanklin School in Beaufort, one of several schools established for black students at the time. He met his future wife, then Ida Magwood, while at Shanklin. They wed after his sophomore year at Allen University, while she was attending nursing school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Martin recalled that the white teachers and the principal at the time – Emmett McCracken Sr. – would attend the graduations at the schools Martin and his siblings attended.
Martin once said that despite the fact that the schools were segregated, the small town itself was racially mixed and everyone did things together, particularly the youngsters, who would play baseball and other games, and then scrimmage and call each other names like kids do.
“Our family goes back a long way. We have always had a great love for our hometown,” Martin said. “Some of the people that I saw there are the folks I would see when I was out there, active and doing things.”
The guests at the Nov. 8 ceremony included Bluffton stalwarts Annelore Harrell, Larry Toomer, Laura Bush and Babbie Guscio, a few of the many who had seen Martin do some of those “things.”
“I felt gratified, grateful. I was overwhelmed, but our roots go way back in Bluffton,” he said. “I was really surprised to see those folks there. They are Bluffton strong.”
Martin’s contributions to the community included teaching government and economics at the former McCracken High School, serving as a district office administrator for 23 years, and as a municipal court judge for Bluffton from 1992 to 1995. He was also chairman of the Bluffton Library when it was decided to build the current facility.
Martin was determined to stay home and become a “homegrown teacher,” as his mother hoped. Upon graduating from cum laude from Allen with a Bachelor of Arts degree, Martin applied to law school in 1950 at the University of South Carolina. The dean – a retired U.S. Army general – was going to admit him as the first black law student. When then-Gov. Strom Thurmond got wind of this plan, he rejected the admission, and the fallout was a news story that traveled up and down the Atlantic Coast.
After the “whoo-hoo with the governor” – as Martin called it – he was blackballed from any teaching jobs. He had also applied for a commission with the U.S. Air Force but was told he could only enlist. He said he had a college degree and decided against that, so then he and Ida went to Detroit to join friends who had moved there.
Martin applied to the Detroit Police Department and began a career that spanned nearly 30 years in Detroit and then Waukegan, Ill., where he became chief.
In 1968, when Congress passed the Law Enforcement Assistance Program, which provided first responders a way to upgrade their education, Martin got a master’s degree in public administration.
He retired from the force in 1977; in 1979, he and Ida felt the call to come home and returned to Bluffton.
The Bluffton-Hilton Head Island Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Committee honored Martin with a 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award for his public service career and his volunteer activities, including 28 years with Hilton Head Island’s Meals-on-Wheels program.
Martin also supported his wife’s contributions to the greater Bluffton community. At 60 years old, Ida founded Bluffton Self Help Inc. in 1987. In 2012, she also founded the Bluffton Community Soup Kitchen. President Barack Obama awarded Ida the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2011.
The Martin Family Park on Boundary Street was named in honor of Martin’s family in April 2021.
The couple had four children: the late Richard, Richard II, Constance, and Crawford Martin.
The Martin family’s mission of neighbors helping neighbors lives on in the Bluffton community.
“That’s our custom. We welcome all good people who come here and find our home town and make it better,” said Martin. “Bluffton is a super place.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.