This is the second of four weekly articles — to commemorate historic local residents and Black History Month — written for the News Journal by Shelby Boatman, Executive Director of the Clinton County History Center.
Charles “Hammie” Graham was born in Battle Creek, Michigan on May 13, 1918. While his name and face may be unfamiliar to you, his efforts and achievements in advancing equal rights for African American students and homeowners in Clinton County should not be.
The popular owner and operator of Hammie’s Snack Shop — once located in the neighborhood of the county courthouse and frequently visited by Wilmington College students toward the end of World War II — Graham graduated from Wilmington High School in 1936. He attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University to play basketball, but returned to Wilmington in 1947 after becoming ill and leaving school.
Hammie jumped into the Clinton County community after returning home, and in addition to his restaurant, he opened a barber shop, beauty shop, and recreation facility for youth — all within the building he owned.
While raising his son as a single father, he became frustrated with the educational segregation of white and black children in the community. His son, Robert, was required to attend Midland School — an all-black elementary school with textbooks and supplies often tattered and hand-me-downs from schools serving solely white students.
After growing tired of the segregation around him, Charles Graham rallied neighborhood support and challenged the local school board on the matter. He felt his son deserved to receive the same quality education as those attending white schools.
While his application was brushed off as not serious, the Wilmington School Board eventually voted in the fall of 1950 to phase out a segregated Midland School, citing inefficiency and high costs due to the small population they served. It is widely believed that, as a result of pressure from the community and Wilmington College students who protested and stood in solidarity with Graham, the board chose to purse integration rather than face mass criticism.
In 1953, less than a year before the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision was affirmed, Midland School reopened its doors as a kindergarten school for all students in the Wilmington Public School System, regardless of skin color.
As a result of personal experiences, Graham was instrumental in desegregating Wilmington’s elementary schools and taking up the “torch” following previous attempts by Ted and Mary Elizabeth Lewis in 1939, and J.R. Hawley in 1895.
He saw what was wrong in his community and spoke out. He experienced segregation firsthand and acted in the only way he knew how — by standing on conviction for a better education for his children and their children to follow.
Besides for the school system, Graham was also successful in desegregating the former White House Restaurant located downtown when he accompanied CCAFB servicemen in uniform to the business. The staff could not refuse members of the U.S. Air Force, regardless of color.
Following that monumental day, it is said the White House served any customer that walked in their door. He was also a charter member of Homes of Wilmington, an organization that worked to eliminate substandard housing in the community.
Now buried in Gist Cemetery near Hillsboro, his memory and impact on Clinton County shall live forever in the accomplishments he achieved during his life.
For more information on this topic please contact the History Center at 937-382-4684 or visit us online at www.clintoncountyhistory.org .