Association for the Study of African American Life and History honors leaders 

Unsung Heroes: Honoring the black community's unheralded local leaders

As a kid, Gary Lesesne lived a few blocks down the street from Harmon Park on President Street downtown and played sports there. He credits little league coaches Modie Risher and Oscar Fordham for instilling values that have made him a successful husband, father, and businessman.

In addition to Lesesne, Fordham and Risher have influenced thousands of boys over the course of their four decades coaching football and baseball. Fordham coached younger boys at the park while Risher coached varsity sports at Burke High School across the street.

Kids in the neighborhood literally transferred from little league sports at the park to Burke's varsity program, creating one of the state's most formidable football teams. Lesesne thinks Fordham's and Risher's contributions to youth sports in Charleston is worthy of recognition and proposes placing statues of the two men at Harmon Park.

While Risher has had his share of accolades — the new gymnasium at Burke High is named in his honor and he's been recognized statewide for his accomplishments — Fordham, who still coaches, has had only the appreciation of the boys he coached to commemorate his contributions.

Fordham is one of many individuals in the local black community who has made anonymous contributions.

Some like the late Joseph A. Moore, who preceded Risher as an architect of the boys' athletic program at Burke High, never got any recognition even though the man many called "Pop Moore" coached football and taught history at Burke and C.A. Brown High Schools over the course of a four decade career.

College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers, a founding member of the Charleston branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), says the organization hopes to change that.

Founded in 1915 by Harvard scholar Carter G. Woodson, who also initiated Black History Month, the association's mission is to research and publicize every aspect of African American history. But for the Charleston branch, it's been tough going.

Despite hosting one of the association's annual conferences, the 13-year-old peninsula chapter of the ASALH still struggles to enlist members. Currently about 20 people take part in the branch's annual awards program, which honors one deceased and one living figure who were major contributors to the local community.

Among the recipients are former state legislator Herbert U. Fielding, former Charleston County School Board member Elizabeth Alston, the late Morris Street Baptist Church pastor and civil rights advocate the Rev. A. R. Blake, and legendary black law enforcement officer Fred Stroble.

Powers says scores of unsung heroes like the late North Charleston civil rights advocate Walter Jenkins and educator Thomasena McPherson made invaluable contributions to local history, but the tendency has been to focus on national figures.

With rare exceptions, such as the current effort to establish a monument to insurrectionist and abolitionist Denmark Vesey, most local black heroes go unnoticed, Powers says. Some $90,000 has been raised to establish the monument to Vesey slated for placement at Hampton Park sometime in the next four years.

While the ASALH will strive to put more focus on local unsung black heroes, black churches and schools must do their part as well, Powers says, adding that Black History Month must be extended 11 more months.

"Outside of (local blacksmith) Philip Simmons, there's been a tendency to think about national figures while we have historical figures walking among us. Some of us are trying to put more focus on them, but we can do more," Powers says.

The ASALH meets at Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, 125 Bull St., downtown every third Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

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