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North Charleston's first African American mayor leans on lessons in faith and sacrifice

North Charleston's first African American mayor Reggie Burgess speaks to students at Charleston Southern University about faith, sacrifice and service to others. Feb. 21, 2024.
Victoria Hansen
South Carolina Public Radio
North Charleston's first African American mayor Reggie Burgess speaks to students at Charleston Southern University about faith, sacrifice and service to others. Feb. 21, 2024

North Charleston first new mayor in nearly 30 years says the struggles and sacrifices of his past will help him shape the city's future as its first African American mayor.

As a child, Reggie Burgess dreamed of winning a gold medal by running track in the Olympics. He remembers his first-grade teacher asked him why.

“I said ‘I’ll win it and I’ll come back here to America, and I’ll sell it so I can give it to my mother so we can get off the projects’," recalls Burgess.

Burgess grew up in the projects of South Carolina’s third-largest city, North Charleston. He now serves as its first African American mayor.

“Where I came from, you never imagine that I would be here,” says Burgess.

The 58-year-old was sworn in two months ago and believes his past will help him shape North Charleston’s future.

City of North Charleston
Reggie Burgess is sworn in as the first new Mayor of North Charleston in nearly 30 years at the convention center. Jan. 2, 2024.

Burgess was raised by a single mother, who at 17, quit high school to work three jobs to support him and a younger brother. He says she made sure the children were fed and brought home food from restaurant jobs. But he rarely saw her eat.

Sometimes, she returned from work with bandaged arms after being burned in kitchens by popping grease. Burgess worried about his mom but says she once explained, the bandages didn’t always cover injuries.

“She said ‘oh no son, mamma had to sell some blood. I (she) had to get some extra money,'” says Burgess.

“That’s sacrifice,” adds Burgess as he pauses to wipe away tears.

Burgess says he learned early about the power of sacrifice for the good of others. He shared the lesson recently with students at Charleston Southern University.

“And don’t you know people, that same woman that came into my life in 1965 at 17 years old wasn’t even my mother,” Burgess told the crowd inside the Christian school’s Lightsey Chapel.

Hundreds sat in silence as Burgess explained, the only mother he’s ever known is really a friend of the woman who gave birth to him. His biological mother could not come home from the hospital.

Burgess also told the students about the man who eventually became his father, marrying his mom and moving the family out of the projects. Together, they attended church where Burgess’s faith in God grew. He went on to college where he ran track and played football on a scholarship.

But when Burgess returned to North Charleston, he noticed his historically Black neighborhood had changed. Elders no longer relaxed on porches while kids with guns hung out on street corners.

“That’s when I realized drugs had impacted my community,” Burgess told the students. “So, I said to myself’ what can I do? How can I make things better?’”

Burgess decided then to become a police officer and served North Charleston for 34 years. In 2018, he was named the city’s first African American police chief.

Students who heard his story said it hit home, reflecting their university's values.

“Just how you know the Bible tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, we should too do that together especially for the Black communities,” said Amaris Belisle.

Burgess knows he faces challenges. He’s North Charleston’s first new mayor in nearly 30 years. He replaces long-time Mayor Keith Summey, who decided not to run again.

City of North Charleston
Reggie Burgess with North Charleston's former, long-time mayor Keith Summey, as he becomes the city's first African American police chief. January 11th, 2018.

Already, there are questions about who Burgess has hired. And census numbers show roughly one in six people in his community still lives in poverty. The area has struggled since the closure of the Navy base there in 1996.

Now, Burgess says there are redevelopment plans. He’s breaking ground on attainable housing and meeting with grocery store chains to fill food deserts.

But the 2015 shooting death of an unarmed man, Walter Scott, at the hands of a former, fellow officer still lingers like a haze over the city.

“See, every human being has biases, every human being,” says Burgess. “We first have to acknowledge that.”

City of North Charleston
North Charleston Mayor Reggie Burgess walks the streets with people in the community to protest violence while serving as the city's first African American police chief. March 5, 2018.

As police chief, Burgess says he worked to address those biases. He invited Scott’s brother to talk yearly to police recruits in training. He says it's painful, but necessary.

Burgess still walks the streets he once patrolled.

“I want to get to that place where there’s no more hurt, we don’t have to talk about affordable housing, nobody is looking a skin colors and gender,” says Burgess.

North Charleston’s new mayor believes such a dream can be achieved but only by recognizing and serving the needs of others.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.