It was a non-eventful night that cemented a 52-year friendship of two women, scarred by time and loss.
They had been 8-year-olds in the first integrated class at Myrtle Heights Elementary School. One white. One Black.
“I remember vividly standing in front of that class, the only little brown girl in there,” Mary “Cookie” Goings said. “But I was almost as feisty then as I can be now sometimes.
“I can remember standing in front of that class and saying, ‘My name is Mary Canty, and I’m going to be a teacher.’”
Outgoing, Goings made friends easily.
“I just remember this girl who had the prettiest red hair, and I’d never seen red hair before,” she said describing Amy Wingard as the pair sat side by side in beach chairs in Chapin Park during a city-sponsored Beachside Chats on Sunday.
Wingard, the daughter of a Lutheran minister, had invited Goings to a sleepover more than a half a century ago in Myrtle Beach. She hadn’t told her parents Goings was Black.
“I didn’t find this out until I was an adult, and my mother told me I evidently looked at her to see what kind of reaction she was going to have,” Wingard said. “I have no memory of that at all, but evidently I knew that was a bit of a challenge to them. But they obviously didn’t flinch.”
Neither remembers much about the sleepover. They ate dinner, slept, ate breakfast and walked to the beach.
They grew older and apart as they lived parallel lives. They had different friends and attended different universities. Goings graduated from the Rev. Bill Wingard’s alma mater Newberry College. They stood close by as each buried loved ones. And they remembered the other as a friend.
And as motorcycles blared on Kings Highway and about 55 people gathered at Chapin Park on Sunday, they listened to others talk about race relations.
The Beachside Chats began in early June, days after a pair of protests spanned from Ocean Boulevard to the police station off Oak Street. A curfew had been declared that Memorial Day. Police officers dressed in riot gear and marched protestors from the police station toward Kings Highway. Several people were arrested. On June 7, another gathering was held in The Market Common with Mayor Brenda Bethune, Myrtle Beach Police Chief Amy Prock and City Manager John Pedersen walking with the demonstrators.
The protests were held in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His arrest was filmed and shared worldwide as a police officer knelt on his neck and onlookers pleaded for his release while Floyd repeated, “I can’t breathe.”
The first Beachside Chats, held on the same date as The Market Common gathering, included eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence, the length of time officers held Floyd on the ground.
At that first Chapin Park gathering, Goings said the purpose was to bring people together to talk about race and equality peacefully and honestly.
People broke apart in small groups. Some talked about being harassed by the police. Some talked about not understanding racism. Some talked about being sheltered from racism and wondered if their unknowing had equaled being compliant. Some talked about systemic racism and being denied business loans. Some talked about the impossibility of knowing what it is like to see the world through another’s eyes.
“What we witnessed were people who are scared,” said Goings at the time. “Some were scared, some are scarred.”
But, now with seven chats under the Neighborhood Services department’s belt, there has been some healing and awakening, she said. And there is still more to do.
The Sunday chat began with Goings asking for a moment of silence for Myrtle Beach area civil rights activist and community organizer Bennie Swans and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Both died recently.
Sylvester McCoy has attended all of the chats.
“I’ve come to know one thing for sure — we need each other,” he said Sunday. “We need each other whether we be rich, whether we be poor, Black or white, whether we be educated or uneducated. We need each other.”
Mayor Bethune echoed McCoy’s words and said she finds herself fully believing all people have more in common than they differ.
“I know even though this park is not filled yet, this has been a light in our community for God to bring people together that probably would have never come together before to have these discussions, real hard, honest, painful, sometimes painful, raw discussions,” Bethune said. “It’s just incredible to see that we can be that small light to show that you don’t always have to use anger and violence to bring people together. That’s not the way to do it. But having these discussions and working together out of love and respect is the way to make change.”
It’s changed Georgia Manges.
Growing up with racism, Manges said she found herself waking from a fitful dream at 3 a.m. after the second Beachside Chats in June. She wrote a poem that night and it is now recited from the stage and the title is painted on a wall facing Mr. Joe White Avenue in front of the Myrtle Beach Colored School Museum and Education Center.
“To those who have experienced racism
To those who grew up in racists homes
To those who don’t believe racism still exists
To those who have been racists
We are here to listen,” her poem "We Are Here" reads.
Listening is one of the mandates of the chats. Learning, speaking and acting are the others.
“This has changed me totally inside out,” Manges said. “You just have to listen and know enough is enough. It’s enough.”
Believing the chats were needed took April Johnson of Neighborhood Services by surprise, she said manning the table by the park entrance as she gave away yard signs and sold shirts on Sunday.
“I didn’t believe in it because what I was taught, we didn’t grow up Black and white. We grew up with what was right, what was wrong. I was like, ‘What’s so hard to do the right thing?’ But then we started having conversations, and there was a lot that I didn’t know,” she said.
Now, Johnson smiled at the mayor, she laughs about hearing Bethune’s heels clicking toward her office at City Hall.
“It’s my safe place. I can go there to talk, whatever,” Bethune said. “They know my office is their safe place, too.”
Both agree the chats have reached beyond Chapin Park and City Hall with Charlotte and Asheville planning to start similar events. Johnson said people from Chicago and Australia have contacted the city about starting similar programs.
Ernest Skelton and Caroline Brock know something about reaching a wide audience.
Brock had called Skelton to repair an appliance shortly after Floyd’s death sparked unrest and outrage. A conversation about his experience as a Black man being repeatedly pulled over by police officers was shared on social media nearly 200,000 times.
“I’m just a white, Myrtle Beach housewife,” Brock said. “I just asked a question, and Ernest was so honest. My husband was upstairs watching the TV news about George Floyd, and we were so concerned, torn up about it. That’s when Ernest showed up. I just asked him how he was doing.
“It opened my eyes, to the say the least. Now I know we can all do something. If I can do something, so can you.”
Skelton, looking at the Chapin Park gathering, said he had been frustrated and angry. But, he said, he had swallowed the feelings as he went about doing his work. Until the day he walked into Brock’s home.
“As an African American Black man, I just wanted to be heard. We just want to be listened to,” he said. “I didn’t expect it, but I told her about how I was treated. I guess it was everything going on at the time, but I told her. Listening. Listening and speaking up. As an African American Black man, speaking up is the most important thing.”
Those experiences Skelton found himself unloading included being belittled and demeaned when a former boss repeatedly called him “boy” and his fear of police while driving to or from appointments after dark.
“See, now I know,” Johnson said of Brock and Skelton’s story. “This has changed me, my view of people. I learned I can’t fault you for how you were raised. But we are here now. Now what can we do?”
Beachside Chats is held every other week on Sundays at Chapin Park off Kings Highway and 14th Avenue North.