Rep. Elijah Cummings born in Baltimore but shaped by South Carolina

Son of sharecroppers, Rep. Cummings leaned heavily on his SC roots

Rep. Elijah Cummings born in Baltimore but shaped by South Carolina

CLARENDON COUNTY, S.C. (WIS) - Rep. Elijah Cummings died early Thursday morning at the age of 68 after a series of health complications, according to his staff.

However, his loss wasn’t just felt in Washington and his home state of Maryland. Some South Carolinians also felt as if the state lost a son.

"Elijah's roots were in Clarendon County, South Carolina," wrote Cummings' close friend on Capitol Hill, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn.

His parents were sharecroppers in Manning and left the state after they had Cummings’ eldest sibling. While Cummings was born and raised in Baltimore, South Carolina never stopped being home for the late congressman, according to his relative who still lives in the Midlands.

“You don’t ever want to forget where you cometh,” said Alice Walker, Cummings’ cousin.

Clarendon County, where Cummings came from, is known for decades-old civil rights activism, and Cummings’ family were deeply involved with these fights.

“What’s ironic about the Cummings’ is they are working on land that has been a part of their family for generations,” said historian and University South Carolina Professor Bobby Donaldson.

Cummings traced his lineage to a black man who was able to vote in 1868 in Clarendon County, nearly a century before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is because a new constitution was written in South Carolina, which gave him that right during that time.

"He was aware his great-great-grandfather could vote in South Carolina, but his grandfather could not because of the dramatic transformation of segregation," said Donaldson who studies the region.

Decades later, the civil rights fight in Clarendon County is still going strong. A prominent civil rights case was sparked in the Midlands county. Briggs v. Elliot began over a fight concerning public school transportation for students of color. The case later became a precursor to a pivotal Supreme Court case on segregation, Brown v. Board of Education. According to Donaldson, some believe Cummings’ family was involved in Briggs v. Elliot.

However, while the county was known for its civil rights advocacy, it was also known for its civil rights struggles, according to Donaldson.

Cummings’ family left as part of a larger migration of black people in the south to northern cities. In hopes of a better life, Cummings’ family went to Baltimore where he would later serve as Congressman. Donaldson said a number of South Carolinians lived in Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s.

"What they discover when they get there is things might be slightly better, but it is no promised land. They are still struggling to have better wages, better living conditions, and they also begin to struggle with racial injustice in this new place," he said.

Cummings’ cousin remembered a story the former representative once told her of when Elijah Cummings asked his father why he would wait in the car before coming into the house after work. Cummings told his relative his dad would often hit a tree in their yard before going inside.

“They finally said, ‘Dad, why do you do that,’ and he said, ‘It’s because I leave all of my problems on that tree,’” Walker recounted. "You do what you do to have a better life for your family and that’s what he did. He sat there and let anger and rage go and then he knocked on the tree to say I’m leaving it here. He would then go inside and spend time with his family,” she said.

According to Donaldson, Cummings followed his father's example.

"He is very open to saying that that commitment to struggle and a fight is inherited from his family who has roots in Clarendon County," he said.

With such strong roots, Walker said he made a point of coming down frequently and loved his time in the Palmetto State. She remembered him asking her mother to prepare some of his favorite dishes before his trips down to South Carolina.

"He would come and she would do everything. He requested butter beans, okra, bake a cake, whatever. And they would sit there and have lemonade and iced tea and laugh and reminisce," she said.

On Thursday, South Carolina honored the man who was strong shaped by it and lowered the flags at the Statehouse to half staff.

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