Jacob Martin was always going to come home to Bluffton.
Serving as a police officer for 30 years, mostly in Detroit, Martin considered his plans when as a young officer he walked a beat alone.
“They didn’t have too many two-man beats in Detroit back then in Eastern Market. At 5 o’clock in the morning, I’d be thinking about Bluffton,” he said. “I’d say ‘I’m going back to Bluffton one of these days.’ I’d be out there and sometimes it’d be cold – 5 or 6 degrees – with the winds coming down from Canada.”
In 1979, Martin kept that promise, and that April began building the house on May River Road. It was also partly fulfilling his mother’s wishes.
“The dream of our mother was for us to get an education. There had never been a colored – we were ‘coloreds’ at that time – male to graduate from college from Bluffton,” said Martin. “My plans were really to come back to Bluffton.”
After graduating, Martin had a contract to teach school in Bluffton. All of his teachers and principals came from Charleston, Columbia or elsewhere.
“We never had any colored teachers. That was my mother’s dream. I was the first colored ‘homegrown’ teacher,” Martin recalled.
Born in 1928, he grew up on Calhoun Street in a family of 11 children – six girls and five boys. Martin was seventh in line. His father, John, was a Merchant Marine, hitting ports around the world. His mother,, Rena worked as a housemaid.
The children attended area boarding schools established for black students. Martin’s younger brother, Dan, finished at the Penn School on St. Helena Island while Martin graduated from Shanklin School, a coed boarding school in Beaufort.
When school was out, the family went to Baltimore, where Martin’s father had bought a home.
“There was nothing here in the summers when we were finished school. My father was a merchant seaman, so he would sail into Baltimore as well as different ports,” said Martin. “He had a home in Baltimore when he was growing up, so he bought one for us, and the family spent summers working. For most of us, that was a launching pad for us out of Bluffton.”
From a stack of folders holding photos, news clippings and notes, Martin pulled out a few pages containing memories of growing up in Bluffton, saying it was somewhat idyllic.
“It was Mayberry-like but it wasn’t all white,” Martin read. “From its inception in the late 18th century, Bluffton was equally white and black. The town itself never had more than 450 or 500 people. We did everything together except go to school and to church, but they came to our church whenever they wanted to, on special occasions, things like that.”
Martin said the white teachers and the principal, who at the time happened to be Emmett McCracken Sr., would attend the graduations at the schools Martin and his siblings attended.
After church on Sundays, he said, “We all got together, the white boys and the colored boys. We played baseball in the ballfield where I lived on Lawrence Street. There were once in a while scrimmages, name-calling, and other kinds of disagreements that often occurred, but they were not racial. They were just normal behavior that happened amongst kids who passed one another going in the opposite direction to school each day.”
Martin said his mother worked for the Heywards, and his older brothers grew up together in Bluffton with the Heyward boys. They all used to all go up to Foreman Hill – all of which was cow pastures.
“We had our own cow and would take it up there let it graze in the river. We had our own milk. We had every kind of tree: pear, peach, plum, fig trees and a grape arbor, pecan – anything that grew,” Martin said. “We ate every meal out of the May River – whatever season it was. Fish, crab, oysters, shrimp; we could go down this time of the year sometimes when the tides would come in on the cold morning.”
His mother worked in the oyster factory for Sam Graves.
“We’d eat supper when momma came home. We had a little oyster, sometimes a little crab meat. We never went hungry,” he said.
Local merchants provided different services.
“Robert Cahill had that thing where they ground people’s cane to make syrup. And they used to kill people’s hogs up there,” said Martin. “If you had a hog, they would kill it for you.”
Martin met his future wife, Ida Magwood, while attending Shanklin. She was a year ahead of Martin. They wed after his sophomore year at Columbia’s Allen University, while she was attending nursing school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
When the couple eventually returned to Bluffton, Ida founded Bluffton Self Help and served the community’s most needy residents.
Martin graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree and applied to the University of South Carolina law school.
“At that time, no Southern university had any blacks in them, not even in the undergraduate. That was in 1950. So I wrote a letter, and the dean was going to admit me,” he said.
When the news came out, then-Gov. Strom Thurmond heard about it.
“He said no, no,” said Martin, “so they rejected me.”
His application caused ripples and soon a newspaper article reported “Allen graduate seeks to enter USC Law School.”
The news reached all the way along the Atlantic Coast, even in the Miami Herald.
“The story was all over the place about this Negro seeking to go to the USC law school, and Strom Thurmond saying no,” he said, “so I was blackballed from teaching. I couldn’t get a job any place.”
Martin then applied to the U.S. Air Force Officer Candidate School, traveling to Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter.
“They wouldn’t admit me because I was black, but they’d take me into the enlisted ranks. I said the heck with that. I’m not going to volunteer. I had a college degree and I wanted to be a Tuskegee Airman,” Martin recalled.
With USC’s law school, Air Force OCS, and teaching on the East Coast denied to him, Martin headed up north.
“I had some buddies who had gone to Detroit and I kept in contact with them,” he said. He joined the Detroit police department 1952 and liked being a police officer.
“It grows on you,” he said. “I remember when they passed Miranda. You had to know the law when you went to court with the detective in charge of the case. If you did those 16 weeks in our police academy, you didn’t need to go to law school.”
Most daytime beats were one-man beats, with a few two-man beats at night.
“The hardest part about walking the beat, other than trying to stay warm and staying alive, was we had to check the schools and the businesses. When I joined we had about 6,000 policemen and only about 86 of us were colored,” Martin recalled.
Even use of the squad cars was segregated.
“We had one colored car, so to speak, and if more than two colored came to roll call, only two people rode a squad car,” he said. “I remember when they passed integration. A lieutenant we had, Lt. Cole, said, ‘All you guys got to do is work with them. You don’t have to take them home with you. Just work together.'”
When Congress passed the Law Enforcement Assistance Program in 1968 – which provided for reimbursement for law enforcement and other first responders to upgrade their education – Martin earned a Master’s Degree in public administration from Wayne State University.
“By and large, I had a pretty good career. But it’s an experience. Anybody can’t be a policeman, because it requires you have to be dedicated to being a police officer, because you’ve got to resist a lot of things,” said Martin. “Everybody wants to be nice to you, but they expect a lot out of you. And most of what they expect out of us is what we were responsible for doing.”
Martin contacted the South Carolina education department to find out about teaching certification requirements. Upon his return home, he taught one year at McCracken before the school was moved in 1980.
“I taught a course called Equal Government. I was always interested in political science and took all that kind of stuff in college,” said Martin. “Then I worked out of the district office. I also worked on the library board. I was chairman of the Bluffton Library when we decided to build this library. It’s a pretty thing. And I served as a town judge.”
In his family room, Martin’s walls are covered with awards, diplomas, certificates, a framed collection of his police badges, and a large gallery of family photos. He often attends the Bluffton Town Council meetings, and can be seen at various community functions. And Martin still serves his community.
“I started doing Meals on Wheels in 1992, and I’m still doing it. We originally had three routes. Now we have about 18 routes,” he said.
Thinking about what he has done to date, “I’m pretty well satisfied with what I have accomplished.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.