The 2022 Black Excellence Ball, organized by the Bluffton Martin Luther King Observance Committee and held Jan. 14, was not only “A Midnight Masquerade,” but a night to honor three individuals whose passions have served the communities in which they live.

Honored for their community services were Laura Bush, Lifetime Achievement Award; Michael Lewis, Social Justice Award; and Chef BJ Dennis, Gullah-Geechee Gatekeeper Award.

Hosting the gala event were WSAV-TV news anchor Tina Tyus-Shaw, and KJ Kearney, founder and creator of Black Food Fridays – an Instagram account started to help people locate and support Black-owned restaurants during the pandemic. Music was performed by The Promised Land Band.

The awardees traveled different paths in their passion to support their communities.

Laura Bush

Laura Bush

As one of 14 siblings, Bluffton native Laura Bush knew college was out of the question, so upon high school graduation in 1962 she headed north to live with an elder sister in New York, and then a brother in Washington, D.C.

“In the ’60s there was a migration north for better jobs, and to get a career started. My aim was to go up north and make my fortune. I got to Brooklyn and realized I was country girl out of water. I stayed a couple months. It was a quite an eye-opener in the big cities,” said Bush. “Then I moved to DC to stay with my brother. It was amazing. I was there for about a year and a half, and worked a couple of jobs. One in a day care center, and another was in an adult day care home, so I was always working around people.”

In 1963 Bush’s father had a stroke and she returned home to help her mother care for her father and younger siblings.

A few years later, Bush found herself as guide to former governor, then-Sen. Fritz Hollings, and others who were traveling around South Carolina on what he called “Hunger Tours.” Someone recommended her to guide the visitors to homes around Bluffton because she knew the area and the people, including those in need.

“They had no running water, no indoor bathrooms,” said Bush. “The point of it was there were complaints, and a group of individuals like Hazel Frazier and Tom Barnwell were bringing it to the attention of officials. A local doctor had also brought to the attention of the medical community that children were dying of stomach worms due to poor living conditions and lack of potable water.”

As a result of the tour, the Department of Nutrition from the University of South Carolina in Columbia and Horry Medical University received a grant to do a study in the Beaufort-Bluffton-Hilton Head Island community.

Soon after that, she was approached by USC for another related task.

“They wanted to study nutrition and deficiencies in those families’ food, and the lack of food. My job was to get families involved,” said Bush. “I received a station wagon from the university. I brought the kids to then-Bluffton Health Center on May River Road, and they allowed us to use a section of the health department to do the intestinal parasite program.”

The 176 children who were tested were found to be infected with ascaris stomach worms and were becoming ill.

“One girl took the medicine and passed a lot of worms, and the scientists put them in a mason jar in formaldehyde,” she said. “I took them to the homes and showed them to the families. We used it as a tool, and we also taught the families how to prevent getting the worms.”

When the Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health Center was opened in 1970, Executive Director Thomas Barnwell hired Bush and told her she needed to organize 24 target communities in Beaufort and Jasper counties to sell the program.

“It was brand new, so we organized,” she said. “I started with the churches. I spoke with the church rep and they identified local people.”

Bush worked as a consultant on special water projects for Beaufort-Jasper County Water and Sewer Authority, convincing people to give up their wells and hook into the water lines. She was hired by the Institute for Community Education and Training as a director for the women’s education program.

“My job was to organize a statewide program encouraging women to take on non-traditional jobs – painting, construction, welding. I had to identify one person from each county and organize conferences, talking to women telling them there was ‘no reason you couldn’t do these jobs’.”

As a result of this program Bush was one of 50 women nationally to be recognized as a pioneer, putting her in touch with notable women such as Gloria Steinem and Barbara Bush during a tour and program sponsored by Oprah Winfrey in Washington, D.C.

Soon after that, she was recruited to work for the county’s social services, and in 1986 was approached to run for a county-wide seat on the Beaufort County School Board. Her initial foray resulted in a loss, but she ran in the next election, won, and for 26 out of the next 28 years Bush served on the board as chair, vice chair or secretary.

“I’ve always pushed for the struggling students. I pushed for special education students, and the way they were being identified. And then there were the overage students, such as an eighth grader who is 16. They’re always going to have problems, so we pushed for an alternative school for them, and we finally got it,” said Bush. “My last battle was fighting to get the 2.0 average requirement for athletes. I realized our top athletes were being placed in sports and their grade was 1.2 or 1.3, so we had the best basketball players who scored 30 points but couldn’t get into colleges without a 2.0.”

Because of the work she did on the parasite studies, her connections resulted in quite a different experience than she envisioned for her future.

“What amazed me is that I graduated from high school, came back and got involved in two major studies. I realized then I’m an organizer. I process things. I sat there, figured out step by step. Where that came from I have no idea,” Bush said.

She said she had always expected to keep working at maid and waitress jobs. “I was content to do that until this turn of events, and it propelled me into a 40-year career of public service.”

Her impact on the community brought the unexpected news that she was being awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I was surprised. It was a late evening so I wasn’t expecting anyone. When I got to the door, Bridgette (Frazier) was there with cameras and balloons. It’s great when your work is recognized,” Bush said. “I could not have done this without the help of God, and my husband. It’s been a year since I lost him, but he supported me. There’s no way I could have accomplished that without God, and without the help and support of the community and family.”

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

Philadelphia native Michael Lewis received the Social Justice Award. Known locally as a proponent for voter registration, he has always been involved with registering people to vote.

“I was always actively involved in the politics of Philadelphia. It’s hard to live there and not be involved in politics, particularly in the area we lived in which was going through the transition of gentrification,” Lewis said. “When I moved down here I got involved with the church, got involved with registering to vote. Social justice has always been part of my life. You look at social justice and social work, it’s one and the same. It’s always advocating for what is right. It’s not a particular candidate or party but who is going to represent the best interest of the community.”

Lewis, who has a Master’s Degree in social work from Temple University,  was a social worker with the Defender Association Child Advocacy Unit in Philadelphia. He supervised 40 other social workers who went to court to represent the children.

“It’s a line of work that for 18 and a half years I loved. I loved the job but I don’t miss it,” he said. “It was stressful work, but what made it even more stressful was if a child – for whatever reason – passed away on your watch because of an abusive parent, an abusive grandparent, someone else. That was very stressful no matter what kind of services were put in the home. That child’s life expires – it was just dreadful. What made it easy was every social worker was committed to advocating for children.”

Lewis retired in 2012 and still maintains those relationships with his co-workers because of that commitment.

“Whether it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas, we exchange messages. It’s that kind of continuing relationship,” he said.

After he moved to Bluffton, following a year in Aiken, Lewis became involved in voter registration and other community activities.

He and his wife Octavia moved to Aiken because both children went to Southern colleges. A year later, they moved to Bluffton.

“My oldest son went to Clark Atlanta University, and played football. My youngest went to Payne College. They were determined to go to HBCUs – Historic Black Colleges and Universities,” Lewis said.

His oldest now lives in Savannah with his wife and daughter; the youngest and her family live in Philadelphia.

“In Bluffton, I initially got involved with the Bluffton Democratic Party. There was a candidate running who needed assistance in understanding the community, developing the skill of knocking on doors. It’s that grassroots skill of getting to know the people who were going to vote for him,” said Lewis. “I got involved with Kathleen Hughes, and we worked diligently to get people registered.”

Lewis said the down-ballot candidates – those who are running for community or county offices – control what happens in the community.

“I’m a big believer in down-ballot elections and candidates. When we talk about social justice, I wanted to see that when I got involved with those organizations like the Bluffton Soup Kitchen, Habitat for Humanity, League of Women Voters, and the Campbell Chapel Christian Social Action Commission,” he said. “When you talk about social justice, I’m very proud of my volunteerism with the Bluffton Soup kitchen. They feed people. I volunteer every opportunity I can every Monday.”

The soup kitchen at Campbell A.M.E. Church in Bluffton provides hot meals for the community Monday through Thursday. There is also a pantry that provides an opportunity where people can buy food that will hold them through the weekend until the soup kitchen opens again.

“I think that is the core of social justice: being able to feed people. If you can do that, I believe you can influence them to do the right thing in terms of voting,” Lewis said.

His volunteerism in many areas keeps him involved all over the county, but not for any accolades.

“Bridgette (Frazier) came to my home one evening right after my wife and I finished dinner. I was surprised, because I don’t do what I do for recognition. I do what I do because I just believe that it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I just encourage people to play their part in terms of activism, making sure that they know who the candidates are that are running for election. And passing that information on to their children.

“I strongly believe that the youth vote is important, and you have to start somewhere,” Lewis said. “You have to start with the adult in expressing to the children that voting is a part of living; a part of making sure that you are electing the people who are going to be responsible for what goes on in your community.”

BJ Dennis

BJ Dennis

For the past year, Charleston native Chef Benjamin “BJ” Dennis was the culinary director of the new Lowcountry Fresh Market and Café, but he will soon heading the food program at the new International African American Museum in Charleston.

Recipient of the Gullah Geechee Gateway award, Dennis is inspired by the food of his heritage.

“It tells a story of us here in the Lowcountry. The story of a group of people that were able to hold on to so much. Obviously, they have expressed themselves in this New World,” said Dennis. “It’s the history, the roots back to the lineages of western and central Africa. I used to read old Charleston colonial cookbooks and receipts, and they start off with Gullah. That made me realize how much of an influence Gullah was, even though that influence was brought on because of what limited things they were able to express.”

Dennis attended the College of Charleston, but “it didn’t work out for me,” he said. That led to his seeking employment, and that began in the kitchens of Charleston’s restaurants. He said the culinary field found him.

“I started out as a dishwasher while I tried technical college, but I went from business to culinary arts because I started to get more intrigued. It kind of snowballed from there,” said Dennis. “It was probably something that was always in me, but I didn’t know it. I honestly wanted to find a job and stay in Charleston, and it was really limited. Either you were in hospitality, business, nursing field or you had a lot of money and could buy real estate, so I went to work in the kitchens.”

Dennis soon took his curiosity to the Caribbean on the recommendation of a former neighbor whose sister had a restaurant on St. Thomas.

“Mr. Colon was a great cook. After I was working in kitchens a while, he said I should move down there and see his sister. I saw this was an opportunity, so I took it. It’s kind of where I really started to see how great our Gullah culture was here. People there know about us here.”

Not only was Dennis hearing and being told about his own culture, but he was learning that history in the West Indies highlighted African heritage and its unapologetic culture. When he returned to Charleston four years later, he brought a different perspective on the cuisine that has made the city a favorite tourist stop.

“When I came up to Charleston in 2008, I saw how the city had become this very cosmopolitan place, and people around the world were coming to this place for the food scene, but I always saw there wasn’t a lot of respect for the food culture that made this so popular,” he said. “The food from the slaves, the cooks, the caterers. I didn’t see that representation, that voice being heard, and the culture getting the accolades.”

Dennis draws his inspiration for raising Gullah Geechee foodways from those around him.

“I’m always inspired by those who have been doing the work before me. A lot of them are very proud of what I’m doing. For me, I’ve been able to be a voice for them because they come from a generation without an access to the media, and they weren’t able to show pride in their traditions,” he said.

His research has put him in touch with not only his neighbors but with the direct sources of the Gullah Geechee culinary and historical traditions in Africa.

“I’ve been to a couple countries in Africa: Benin, Togo, Senegal, Gambia, Angola. I brought back a lot of spices and dried ingredients, but mainly what I brought back was the spiritual connection that I was longing for. I think that was the big thing I brought back,” Dennis said.

As a former high school mentor chef, he plans to educate young people in underserved communities about more than the ingredients and how they are used.

“It’s not just about cooking, but history and what it means. It’s about the language, the music, the culture,” Dennis said. “Once you chase the cuisine, you start following the history, and it sends you down that rabbit hole for more knowledge.”

The Gullah Geechee Gatekeeper Award was not on Dennis’ radar when it came to foodways.

“When I found out about the award, I was initially shocked but very happy, very honored. I was proud. I’m proud just to be a vessel for my people, for the culture. I’m just one person playing my part, there are so many other folks out here that are vessels for tour culture, through education, through language, through agriculture,” Dennis said. “I’m just one of many folks, so I’m honored.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.