Lowcountry Principal Shines in the National Spotlight

Feb 19, 2021

Charleston County Councilman and North Charleston High School Principal Henry Darby stocks shelves at a local Walmart to help low-income students and their families struggling during the pandemic
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

It's almost midnight and Henry Darby is stocking shelves at a Walmart in North Charleston.  He zips down the aisles unraveling cans from plastic packaging, eyeing them like a puzzle and then putting them in just the right place.

He lives the advice his family gave him growing up in this community.

"They always taught me whatever your hands find to do, do it."

Darby has found something to do alright.

He's the high school principal and Charleston County councilman who's made national news for taking this part time job at Walmart to financially support low- income students.

The Night Shift

He tried to keep the endeavor quiet.  But even dressed down in jeans he was quickly recognized.

"It was the very first night," says Darby.  "A student yelled out, 'Mr. Darby you working for Walmart?'"

Once the word was out, the donations poured in.  Walmart alone gave $50,000.  But Darby continues to work the graveyard shift saying Walmart gave him a job when his students needed it the most.

He still gets calls from reporters from as far away as France and Africa, many eager for a feel-good story amid the coronavirus chaos.  Although some have questioned if anyone can really feel good about students so in need their principal takes on a third job.

But that's what Darby's done.

North Charleston High School celebrates their principal and their accomplishments with posters along the walls
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

His Students

He works through the night and by morning, he's back at North Charleston High School cheerfully greeting students as they get off the bus.

Darby says ninety percent of his students live below the poverty line and the pandemic has only intensified their struggles.  Some students work multiple jobs to support families at home.  Others have ended up living in cars.  Darby discovered another difficult situation after scolding students who were repeatedly late to school

"Hey, we don't play at this school. You get yourself here on time," he told them.  "Then I found out and it hurt my heart these kids were sleeping under a bridge."

Darby says these students and their families not only need help; they need it fast.  He acknowledges there is assistance beyond his wallet.

"But there are times when the red tape is just too much."

"Then I found out and it hurt my heart these kids were sleeping under a bridge." - Principal Henry Darby on the struggles students face in his community

A Community In Need

Chinequa Seabrook is a single mother of two who could not pay her utility bills.  She lost her job nearly a year ago because of the pandemic.  She shudders to think about what could have happened if the school had not stepped in.

"Probably the lights would be out, and you know after the lights it's usually a chain reaction.  I could be homeless," she says.

Seabrook says many in the community who need help are too proud to ask.  That's why Vice Principal Tony Boyer and others at the school go door to door checking on students and their families.

"There are incredible people in difficult situations out there," says Boyer.

The Vice Principal says he's motivated by the needs he sees and by Principal Darby.

"You know, I don't think I've ever known a human like Henry Darby."

Principal Henry Darby receives the Order of the Palmetto, the state's highest civilian honor, from Governor Henry McMaster (left)
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Lessons Learned

Darby was just awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the state's highest civilian honor.  He humbly accepted by sharing a story about his mother.

The single mom had struggled as well and often scoured a nearby dump.  One day she spotted a piece of cloth.

"I saw my mother put her hand in all that filth and gunk and pull out that cloth," said Darby.

He held up the crisp, white shirt his mother made  him from that dirty piece of cloth.  It's a shirt he can still wear today and roll up the sleeves to do whatever needs to be done.