Long-serving South Carolina House representative is an advocate for victims of family violence
How did you arrive at South Carolina?
I was born and raised in a little small town in Indian River County (Florida) called Gifford. It is near Vero Beach. Vero Beach’s claim to fame at the time was that was where the Los Angeles Dodgers did spring training. I grew up in Gifford and graduated from Florida A&M University, the Rattlers, and the Marching 100. A lot of people here in South Carolina tell me I still bleed orange and green because I am 100 percent band. I received my master’s degree at Florida State. My husband and I met, fell in love, married, and then moved to Columbus, Ohio. He got his MFA from The Ohio State University. We moved to South Carolina and have been here and have made it our home.
Your profession is social work; tell us about that experience.
I started work at the local Orangeburg DSS. I worked there for probably five or six years. During the time I was at DSS I got involved with a group in Orangeburg who were creating a Rape Crisis Center. And so I wound up just as a volunteer. You know how things are, when you first start, everybody’s on board? But, as time passes the interest dwindles. Well, fast forward from ’79 when this group started until about ’84, I was a volunteer. We wound up with five people who were still involved. We had a Lutheran minister who was moving to another part of the state. We had the psychologist who was leaving the state. We had another woman who was moving, changing her life focus, going to law school. Another woman and I remained. One day we were sitting around and someone said, “Well, Gilda, you know, you have to be the president?” and I thought, “Why do I have to be the president?” So, anyway, I ended up serving as president in a volunteer capacity. At the end of 1984, I decided that it was truly my passion and something I wanted to devote my full attention to. In January of ’85, I started working full time, and I would add full-time with no pay because there was no funding. And long story short, from ’85 up until this point, I consider the work I do with victims of family violence as the most important work I do.
It’s your legacy?
I’d like to think so. I really would, because when I think about where we started from, and where we are now, and how the work has evolved, we have made such progress. We started as a little rape crisis center trying to provide services for victims of rape in Bamberg and Orangeburg counties. We are now a full-fledged family service agency dealing with issues of violence. We run groups for men and women who batter. We have groups for children. We have a Child Advocacy Center where we do treatment issues with children who are victims of physical or sexual abuse. Of course, we’ve got the Battered Women’s Shelter and still do the rape crisis work along with the work in schools trying to get kids to deal with conflict in an appropriate manner. God, that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?
For people who don’t really understand the intricacies of the state of South Carolina, you are in what is considered the most or one of the most rural counties in the state. Are there disproportionate challenges that you feel that you face serving a rural, not an urban, area?
Oh, without question. And to make my point, when we moved and I started doing this, there was a woman in Orangeburg who said, “You know all this stuff about child sexual assault. I never heard about child sexual assault until Gilda Cobb-Hunter came to town.” You know it’s like, okay, I brought child sexual assault to Orangeburg. The challenges are twofold. One, based on that example I just gave, the lack of information, awareness that people have, to this day, about issues of violence, personal violence, is just amazing to me. In rural communities, the challenge is compounded even more because of the lack of resources, lack of access, that kind of thing. For example, what we found, as it relates to incest, in rural communities, that is something that is not talked about a lot. It’s kind of like people know it’s going on but there is not a lot of conversation, not a lot of talking. I was amazed at that when we first started doing this work. The other challenge, and, quite frankly, are resources. In a small rural community or county or three rural counties which we serve at CASA, you don’t have the BMWs, the Denny’s, and the Advance America. You don’t have the kind of corporate giving community that you have in a lot of urban areas. So aside from the nature of the work being challenging, you’ve got the added burden of trying to figure out how to find resources so that the work can be done, but it all works out. I mean, we are still here after almost 40 years, and I mean it’s the commitment to the work.
You have also served in the state House of Representatives. Is this your twelfth or your thirteenth term?
I’ve been there 25 years. I came in in the middle of a term. Unfortunately, the person who held the seat was caught up in the FBI sting back in the ’90s here in this state, Operation Lost Trust. And so I was first elected January 28th of ’92 and completed that term. Depending on how you count, it’s the 12th or 13th.
You are the senior member of our state House of Representatives?
I am number two out of 124. So I guess that means I’ve been around, as the young people say, for a minute. Yeah. Yeah, good Lord, yeah.
What drove you to run for the state House?
I had no intention of ever running for anything. I have always loved politics, always enjoyed current affairs, all that kind of stuff. We moved to South Carolina and I was miserable and having a pity party and my husband said, “You know, why don’t you get involved in something?” And I started going to County Council meetings on a regular basis. Eventually, people started saying, “Ooh, Lord, who is this lady? First of all, who is this woman with the two names?”
It was like, “Oh, she’s weird.” Then they would say, “Well, she’s from Florida and those people are strange.” I just started getting involved through the County Council meetings, did a lot of voter registration, and became active with the Democratic Party. What I observed was that women were doing the work, but the guys were running for office and getting elected. There was something wrong with that picture, and I said to some of them, “Why don’t you run?” It was like, “Oh, no. We don’t.” So I started something called the Women of Color Political Network back in the ’80s. My whole goal was to encourage women to run for office. I thought that was important because I just didn’t see women’s voices being heard, particularly women of color. I always say to folk, “I can’t speak for all African-American women. You can’t speak for all white women. We need to have voices at the table. We need Native American voices. We need Asian voices. We need Latino voices.” So I started wearing people out. Then this Operation Lost Trust thing happened. So people said, “You know, it’s time for you to put your money where your mouth is.” I said, “Well, I don’t think I could get elected.” I’m not from here, and there’s a Gullah saying in that area that “come here can’t do like been here.” And that means, you know, you came here from somewhere. We’ve been here. And I would say to them, “Well, when is been here gonna start doing something so come here won’t have to do it?” But I thought about it, prayed about it, talked it over with my husband. He said, “Well, you know I’ll be behind you 100 percent, but just don’t expect me to be out on the campaign trail.” And after running, I had never expected to win, won. I have been challenged several times in the Democratic primary ever since. But it, it really was by accident I would say. I never wanted to do it. I wanted access to power, or as one person in Orangeburg use to say, I want to be the king — I don’t want to be the king. I want to be the king maker. And so I adapted that to say, “I don’t want to be the queen. I just want to be the queen maker.”
It didn’t work that way, you ended up the queen.
Ah, well, stop, and we won’t say queen of what.
You are the ranking member on Ways and Means, which is significant and the most prestigious post, I believe, in the House. Tell me about how you have ascended?
The first committee I served on was Ag because, when I came in January, I filled the committee seat, the person who had the seat was on. And so from January to June I was on the Ag Committee. When the Committee assignments were made that December, I was put on Ways and Means. I have been on Ways and Means since I was appointed as a freshman. They say the first freshman ever appointed. There are a lot of things that can be said about me. One that can be said is that I am not a shrinking violet. Even though I was newly elected, I spent a lot of time lobbying for marital rape legislation. So the Legislature was not something that was foreign to me. As a matter of fact, I had been lobbying for marital legislation before serving. There was a legislator, Toy Nettles, from Florence, who chaired the Judiciary Subcommittee that we used to meet with all the time. I remember the day I came into the Legislature, and we were getting ready. We did the opening, the pledge, the flag, and the prayer. And so I spotted Toy. I eased up around, and I said, “Oh, you can’t get away from me as easily now.” He turned around, and he said, “Oh, my God, are you in here?” I said, “Yes I am.”
Tell me about Terry. He’s an artist and an arts educator, and you been married for a good long while.
We celebrated 41 years August 30th. Terry is my best friend. He is the wind beneath my wings. He is phenomenal. He is an artist in every sense of the word. His medium is printmaking. Drawing and printmaking. And he’s just a real — he just balances me.
What was your first job?
My first job was at home helping my dad by delivering newspapers. My brothers and I delivered papers for my dad’s paper route. And so, look, with seven kids, you got to be creative.
How old were you?
Oh, Lord. I was young. I might have been probably 13, 12.
Is that where you got your work ethic from your upbringing?
Oh, God, from my family, yes. My dad always had two or three jobs. He had a full-time job during the day. He had an evening job or an early morning and the newspaper route. He did — had a yard business. At night he cleaned offices, and he would take us with him to clean. We all had our little duties. That’s why, when people, I have to really think, when people look at me and say, “How do you do all of that?” to me it’s normal because I grew up in a family where work was expected. You didn’t lay around in our household and you were told very clearly you’re gonna get an education because education is the key out, and you either get an education or you go in the military. And six — five of us are graduates of Florida A&M.
Who was the person that most significantly impacted you in your formative years?
My grandmother. My dad’s mom.
And why was she so instrumental? Did she live in your home?
No, she did not live with us. But my grandmama was somebody who was just a really nice lady. I never heard her say anything bad about anybody. She was just so patient. She loved all of us unconditionally, and I just watched her, and there was something about her that resonated with me.
What about her influenced you?
Just her nature. She was just somebody who, in spite of everything she had been through, and when I say been through, my grandmother was from Georgia. My mom was from Alabama. When my dad and mom both moved to Florida, they met, fell in love, and blah, blah, blah. But my grandmama grew up in Georgia as a black woman in the early, you know, 1930s, ’40s. In Georgia, you had one avenue, and that was domestic. And it was just, in spite of that, she still had some sense of pride about herself. It was like she was somebody and before Jessie Jackson said: “I am somebody.” It was — it’s hard for me to put it into words.
She had a dignity.
Very much so. And the thing that I fully appreciated, and we’ve talked about this, that I fully appreciated later and not at that time was what she was able to do in spite of not being educated. Not being able to read or write. And all of us, years later, were like, you know, we really should of taken the time to teach grandma how to read and write. That’s something — that’s the one regret that I have, that I never took the time to do that. Now, she might not have been able to read and write, but you better not try and take any money from her. You know, she knew how to count her money. That was for sure.
If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
Why can’t people get along?
What do you want to be remembered for?
The work I’ve done. My campaign themes have always been, “May the work I’ve done speak for me.” I’m not interested in having buildings named after me. I don’t want a road, a bridge, none of that crap. I want living legacy examples of the work I’ve done, the difference I’ve made for people. Little people in particular because it’s the little people who need a loud mouth like me. You know, people of means who get calls returned, they don’t need somebody like me cause they have access. Those little people who nobody knows their name, they don’t know anybody, that’s who I live for. That’s what gives me the drive to get on peoples’ nerves because I’m not there to just go along to get along. There are too many people out there with serious things they’re dealing with who are counting on somebody like me to at least raise the issue. It may not get resolved but at least give voice to it.
What can you tell young women about why you never gave up? What kept you going?
I think a part of it is upbringing. I’ve described how I grew up. I can’t afford to give up. I don’t have the luxury of giving up. For young women, particularly young women of color, I would suggest you can’t afford to give up or give in. There is so much riding on your putting a thumb in your spine and standing for something even if you’re the only one standing. I know it’s hard for young women because they are in an environment where it is hard for them to conceive of a day when the things they now have and that they take for granted won’t be there. I would encourage them to remember that day may well come, depending on choices that they make. I don’t think every young woman ought to be aspiring to go into politics, and I don’t think every young woman ought to be in politics, as an elected official. If you like politics, there are so many other venues that you can impact, like; fund raise, manage campaigns. Whatever, you name it. I really just want young women to believe in themselves first and foremost. Be who you are. Who you are is okay. Be okay with that. Don’t try to be anybody other than who you are.