By Kasey Meredith
Charles T. “Bud” Ferillo is a central figure in South Carolina when it comes to the issue of race relations. From his days as a teenager protesting segregation to his work as a documentary film producer, the Charleston native is well-known as an advocate for equality.
Now, Ferillo is bringing a program modeled after the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute to Columbia. It is known as the Welcome Table.
Charleston and Childhood
From a young age, Ferillo understand the politics of exclusion. Ferillo’s father owned five movie theaters along Charleston’s King St., which were segregated. White patrons entered through the front door. Black patrons entered through a separate entrance that took them to a balcony.
Charles T. "Bud" Ferillo, is the coordinator for the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation.
“Why my father was like that I could never understand; he would never explain to me. But he was to his core, a bigot,” Ferillo said.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Ferillo vowed to hold different views from his father.
“My father for some reason had more racist attitudes towards African American and Jewish people in Charleston, which was quite unusual in my family, which was otherwise very loving and comfortable,” Ferillo said.
The section that Ferillo lived in was integrated, with African Americans, Catholics and Jewish people. He recalls that many of his friends were not of the same race. “ I accepted that as my standard family,” Ferillo said.
He also cultivated some unusual friendships, including the nuns at his private Roman Catholic high school, Bishop England, who told him they would sneak out at night to protest segregation.
“They taught me how different the state, or even the country, could be,” Ferillo said.
Some of Ferillo’s friends were his grandparents’ age, including activists Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark, who were among the key leaders in the civil rights movement in Charleston.
Ferillo’s mother begged him not to attend the sit-in protests at his father’s theaters, so he found an indirect way to help his friends. He made sandwiches and signs for the protesters in the basement of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic downtown church.
Decades later, that church would be the scene of the horrific slaying of the church’s pastor, Sen. Clementa Pinckney, and eight of his parishioners. The alleged gunman Dylann Roof is facing murder charges in connection with the slayings.
In the wake of tragedy
“I made sandwiches and signs in the basement of the Mother Emmanuel AME church, which was two blocks from where I grew up. The very same room that Dylann Roof executed nine people last year,” Ferillo said.
When Ferillo heard that a shooting had occurred in his childhood neighborhood, he was devastated. “I was deeply offended by Dylann Roof’s written vitriol and his stated purpose of wanting to start a civil war based on race, because he felt that the country was losing it’s white supremacy.”
Ferillo had met Pinckney a few times, but did not know the other victims personally.
“All of my childhood, adolescence, service in the military, service in public life, in the statehouse and in business have been exceptionally comfortable working with African Americans,” Ferillo said.
After the shootings, Ferillo began working with others to start South Carolina’s version of the William Winter institute.
The University of South Carolina, which is hosting the Welcome Table, has a garden dedicated to the three students who desegregated USC in 1963.
A seat at South Carolina’s Welcome Table
Ferillo first found out about the William Winter Institute when he was working on a documentary called “A Seat at the Table.” Ferillo was already well known across the state for the 2005 documentary “Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools,” which illustrated the inequity in funding that had left schools along the I-95 corridor dilapidated and with few resources.
The goal of South Carolina’s Welcome Table is to create internal and external dialogue about race in order to spur reconciliation and healing in the community.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Soldier’s Monument on the Statehouse grounds, which the legislature approved in the days following.
South Carolina, Ferillo believed, was ready to begin healing. Inspired, Ferillo began working to establish financial support for South Carolina’s Welcome Table through his work as the coordinator of the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation established at the University of South Carolina.
There are three phases in which facilitators will guide discussion on race. The facilitators will ask open, modest questions. For example, “When did you first realize your race?”
The inaugural discussions began in October at USC among students, faculty and staff. Then the organizers plan to take the conversations into South Carolina communities.
“I have tried to live my faith. I don’t just mean my religious faith but my secular faith, in the need to create a vastly different kind of South Carolina than our history of oppression,” Ferillo said.