Residents of Allendale, SC’s ‘forgotten’ county say ‘Black voters need to be heard. They need to be recognized’

ABC News
ABC News

(ALLENDALE, S.C.) — Allendale, South Carolina, by all appearances, is a town that time forgot. The population of the entire county numbers less than 9,000– a number that dwindles with each passing year.

“What is happening? They don’t have jobs here. Crime is high here and a lot of people just don’t feel protected,” said Phyllis Smart, a longtime resident and owner of a local community center.

Nestled in the southwest corner of this deep red state, is a very blue Allendale county with a population that’s nearly three-quarters black, according to the U.S census bureau.

It’s located 73 miles from Savannah, Georgia, 90 miles from Charleston, and apparently a long, long way off the campaign trail.

Since the beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign, only two candidates have personally held public campaign events with the voters in Allendale. In an effort to gain traction with African American voters, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was one of the first candidates to host a town hall there.

“I went to Allendale County, the poorest county in the state. They hadn’t seen a Democratic presidential candidate in more than a decade, and they feel completely passed over and passed by. So I thought it’s very important to be there and to have that conversation,” Buttigieg said after visiting the area last December.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker met with voters at the Allendale Democratic Party on Jan. 4 right before officially suspending his campaign. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s sister Valerie Biden Owens also held a surrogate campaign event on behalf of her brother back in October.

Before the 2020 race, the last presidential candidate to visit Allendale County was former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards back in 2008.

Once a thriving manufacturing hub, the community is now a graveyard of what once was.

Longtime Allendale resident Patricia Johnson told ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis that she has spent most of her life watching her community change.

“When I was small there were plants where people would get jobs and stay home,” she said.

With few employment opportunities in town, residents who remain travel up to 90 minutes to Hilton Head, Charleston and Columbia for work. The jobs aren’t here anymore and people worry they may never come back.

Main street in Allendale used to be a vibrant, bustling avenue, filled with tourists, now, few stores remain. A lone grocery store remains along with skeletal remnants of 1950s-era motels that greet those who enter, lining the highway that was once the main thoroughfare from New York-to-Miami until Interstate 95 opened two counties over.

“We had all the hotels and all the restaurants, the grocery, we had everything here,” Allendale City Councilwoman Lottie Lewis said.

“We were really the New York of all the other towns,” she added.

 Now, this community trying to rebound and is looking for leaders at both the national and local level to help redevelopment their economy.

“Just take a look around. We kind of get lost. There is nothing here and nobody seemed to be interested in helping us,” Johnson said.

President Donald Trump has recently touted various successes for the black community.

“African American poverty rate has plummeted to the lowest level in the history of our country,” Trump said at a recent Black History Month event at the White House.

The current unemployment rate among African Americans is six percent– which is .5 percent shy of the lowest it has been since 1972, according to the Bureau of Labor.

In South Carolina, the overall unemployment rate is just under 2.5%.

Lewis told ABC News that prosperity has not trickled on the ground in her rural town. “It’s nice to get on television, say all the blacks have this and they have that, but you can look and see this is reality that we’re standing in right now. This is reality,” Lewis said.

 Very few pass through here now, including the presidential candidates promising to bring struggling Americans out of poverty.

Overall, 2020 presidential contenders have held less than 600 events in South Carolina, compared to the more than 2,300 campaign events in Iowa.

Residents in this small community say they are not being heard, “Places like this and throughout low country literally lose their voice,” Smart said.

With her community center, Smart is trying to change that. Beyond feeding her families, she’s educating them about the value of voting.

“I would sit among them and talk with them about the candidates … and it began to open eyes for them,” Smart said.

Allendale has consistently voted for a Democratic president since 1976. Here, Hillary Clinton won 76% of the vote, President Obama 80%.

African Americans ABC News has spoken with across the county said too often, the black vote is taken for granted by Democrats.

“Black voters need to be heard. They need to be recognized. They need to be respected,” City Councilman Larry Cohen said.

“Taken for granted, you know. But we have a lot to offer. We have a lot to offer,” fellow council member Lottie Lewis added.

As the population of the country becomes more diverse, Republicans are increasing their outreach to voters of color. Trump’s re-election campaign recently announced it’s planning to open 15 community centers in urban cities in critical battleground states next month aimed at boosting African-American support heading into the 2020 election.

 The initiative will focus its retail-like pop-up centers in cities with stable economies. As of now, the centers are not located in rural areas hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs.

Voters here aren’t buying the President’s message, “No, I would never vote for him,” Lewis said.

Now an open question, will they vote at all?

“They don’t listen to us. So why should I even vote? Because the things that we ask for never come our way,” Johnson said.

She added, “our history says that we’re not people that give up. We fight.”

And that’s exactly what many here are doing now. Fighting for their future, regardless of who is coming to help.

Lottie Lewis is trying to lead Allendale’s revitalization with the slogan “Forward Allendale.”

“My parents love this town and worked very hard to make things better, I feel like I need to do the same,” Lewis said.

Back at her community center– Smart has a message for this presidential field and politicians across her state, and in Washington, “they really need to come and see the grass root of the people that literally make up America,” she said.

In this deep red state, Lewis says this reliably blue county needs investments both in the courtship of its voters and in the infrastructure of its economy.

“That they need to come this way sometimes,” Johnson added. “Because our vote will matter. You know, one way or the other, our vote will. It may just push you over the edge if you come this way. But when you forget about us, then we’re helping the other person.”

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