The S.C. Black Pride Committee

COLUMBIA — As five days of South Carolina Black Pride came to an end with an awards ceremony on June 29, Ra’Shawn Flournoy was glowing with excitement. “It was phenomenal, seeing the love,” Flournoy said, as he tried to describe his feelings during the first Pride of his life, which he attended with his male fiancee and an estimated 500 other people. “It’s been one big family here. Words can’t compare to it.”

Organizers were happy and exhausted after staging the first 100 percent, locally hosted Pride celebration in the capital for people of African descent who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or same-gender-loving. “It’s all about community,” said Pride committee chair Todd Shaw, an African-American studies professor at the University of South Carolina. “We’re all part of a larger LGBT community, but it’s all right to have family reunions.”

Connecting to ethnic brothers and sisters is a way to feel valued and beautiful that can literally save lives, Shaw said emphatically.

Leaders in the “family” were recognized with honors as follows: Marjorie Hammock, Lorde/Baldwin leadership award; Stacey Smallwood, Trendsetter award for youth; Sam Hunter and K. Allen Campbell, Mother/Father awards for veteran elders; Maurice Adair and Linda Scipio, Mganga (Healer) awards for HIV/AIDS care; and Rev. Bennie Coclough, Rafiki Award for an ally who is not LGBT-identified.

Mingling amid a crowd of 40,000 queer African-Americans at Atlanta Black Pride over Labor Day weekend may be easier for some who fear being seen by the wrong person close to home. Earl Fowlkes, president and CEO of the nine-year-old International Federation of Black Prides, understands the attraction of the big city.

Usually, Fowlkes heads from his home in Washington, D.C., to New York to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. “New York is always going to be there,” he said. “I came here this year. I really want to support the smaller Prides. South Carolina is so conservative, people are courageous to stand up here. I have nothing but admiration for them. I get built up coming here.”

Also in Columbia for the festival was Jermaine Lee, founder and president of the Carolinas Black Pride Movement, which is based in Charlotte, N.C. “I feel like a proud papa,” he said. Lee’s organization worked with Palmetto Umoja in two previous years to direct events in Columbia. This year, with Shaw’s leadership and several generous sponsors, the home team took things over.

Mayor Bob Coble signed a city council proclamation declaring the fourth Saturday in June to be South Carolina Black Pride Day. He also spoke in person at Black Pride’s welcoming reception on June 25. So did Carol Fowler, the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Columbia city council members E.W. Cromartie and Tameika Isaac Devine sent their greetings to the attendees.

A town hall forum on homosexuality and the Bible was held in the University of South Carolina Law School auditorium on June 26. USC religion professor Stephanie Mitchem discussed the topic with Bishop Tonyia Rawls of Charlotte’s Unity Fellowship Church and Columbia’s own Rev. Andy Sidden of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ. WIS-TV Channel 10 newscaster Craig Melvin moderated.

Fowlkes, who is a pastor’s son, said, “That was the best discourse on whether homosexuality is a sin that I have ever heard. I was just riveted. It was 90 minutes of sitting on the edge of your chair.”

Friday night, June 27, was devoted to the arts. Authors Laurinda Brown and Terrance Dean performed readings. The multi-talented Lee offered the second act, directing an excerpt from his musical “For the Love of Harlem” featuring great same-gender-loving artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Saturday touched all bases from serious to fun with a community expo and dance entertainment. While vendors advised how to prevent or cope with various life-threatening illnesses, the Carolina Ballroom Council took the floor in the auditorium of the Margarette Miller Center, a black cosmetology facility. Smiling black and white volunteers assisted with tables and as part of the force assembling Pride kits to hand out to hundreds of black guests.

Shaw credited Ryan Wilson, who recently assumed leadership of the South Carolina Pride Movement, with changing attitudes to help people of different races support one another. Sometimes, that means creating separate spaces, Fowlkes said. “The urban gay ghetto has been a safe space for the larger community,” he said. “For this particular weekend, this is a safe space for us.”

The Carolinas Black Pride Movement is working on creating that special space next in the Durham-Raleigh-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. The local group is known as the Triangle Black Pride Committee. Sixty people attended its first organizing meeting four months ago. Lee said he expects that the Triangle will hold its first Pride on the first weekend in July 2010.

Then what? Lee didn’t miss a beat. “Charleston has been calling us.”