Kathy Hunt: A life of activism

A girl, no older than 9, looks out of her bedroom window and sees flames. 

The fire is burning just beyond the railroad tracks that divide Charleston, S.C. in two; one side for the Black residents and the other for the whites.

A closer look makes it clear what is burning.

A cross. 

Set aflame by the Ku Klux Klan.

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This episode is imprinted in 71-year-old Vertrilla Kathy Price Hunt’s memory, as vivid as the day she saw it.

“That was their way of scaring us,” Hunt said. “That they could have come.

“You just [stayed] in your lane,” she said. “[My parents would tell me to] stay over on this side, and after a certain time at night you weren’t going outside or anything like that, because that type of thing was going on.”

Hunt, president of Oviedo Citizens in Action, Inc., knew then that she wanted better. For herself. For her future children. For everyone. And she has devoted her life to achieving that.

Active in the Oviedo community since the early 1990s, Hunt has made it her life’s work to better her community, wherever it may be. As a member of OCIA for 30 years, she has helped the organization advance its work of bringing equal rights to the underserved in the community. OCIA’s “founders helped desegregate a number of local businesses … through nonviolent protests. They also sought to have their causes addressed by local government, especially equal housing and voting rights,” according to their website.

“She is the heart of Oviedo,” said Jenette McKinney, a member of OCIA who has known Hunt for 30 years. “She’s a get-up-and-go person. If something needs to be done, she’s going to get up and make sure that it’s done.”

Born in the historically Black Liberty Hill – a community founded more than 150 years ago by former slaves – of segregated Charleston in 1951 to Gladys and James Timothy Price, Hunt has made speaking out for and helping others her life’s work since that moment she saw the burning cross. 

“I was bruised,” Hunt said. “But not broken.”

Besides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., – who Hunt credits with “exposing us and giving us the knowledge of what’s going on” – it was Gladys and James Timothy who helped lead Hunt on the path she has taken.

“My two parents, they were heroes and sheroes to me,” Hunt said. “They fostered that activism in me. There was nobody else that I could turn to.

“I appreciated their struggles,” she said.

Hunt’s high school boyfriend, Elijah “Cal” Morrison, recalls his regular conversations with her father, talking about how “he was just not pleased with the way things were,” Morrison said.

Kathy Hunt was one of the first students to integrate a local South Carolina high school.

Her story is weaved throughout American history.

On the separate entrances and waiting rooms for Blacks and whites at the doctor’s office: “I don’t know what [the whites’] side of the waiting room was like, but ours was just a concrete floor,” she said. “Was almost dirt, as far as I was concerned.”

On going to the polls with her parents as they cast their first-ever ballots following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act: “They understood [that] now, we have a voice,” Hunt said. “[I saw] the proud parents that they were, that we could vote and this is going to help to give us a voice.”

On her experiences with blatant racism: “Just for the color of your skin, you were spit upon, you were called [N-word] every day,” she said. “I thought that my middle name was [N-word] there for a while because that’s all you heard when you were at school.”

School is vital to Hunt’s story. She wasn’t just a student. She made statements.

After finishing her freshman year at the local Black high school, Bonds-Wilson High, Hunt’s mother decided that she had had enough of outdated, hand-me-down books and materials for her children.

“That would throw us behind,” Hunt said. “But then what that did for us is made us strive to do even better, because you couldn’t give 100%. You had to give 200% in order to strive and be above average in the classroom.”

To ensure Hunt and her siblings had the same educational advantages as white students, Gladys made a decision. A decision that would further cement Hunt’s path toward activism.

She told Hunt that she would be among just a handful of Black students to attend and integrate the previously all-white North Charleston High School.

“When the opportunity presented itself, my parents were interested enough to say, ‘You guys are going. I want to know what’s in that school, that thing that they do not want to share,’” she said. “They want to keep us separate – talking about separate-but-equal – but how could it be equal if we’re getting hand-me-down books? Come on now. Something’s wrong with that.”

A frightened Hunt entered the halls of North Charleston High School on her first day as a sophomore, with her mother by her side, ensuring she would get to class. Then the glares began.

Other students’ eyes were fixated on Hunt. To assist with the transition, the new Black students were provided a “buddy,” a white student who would be by their side, helping with anything that was needed to acclimate the Black students to their new, unfamiliar, and often unwelcoming, environment.

Despite the help, the experience was not easy.

“Right away, when students walk into class and see me in the classroom, they were going, ‘Oh, I can’t stand you,’” Hunt said. “Without even knowing me, it’s like I was smelly or something like that. And you heard that every day, every day, every day. It was a nervous time until you realize that, hey, you let them know that I’m not afraid of you. You might as well get used to this.

“What we figured out quick is that if you fight one time, they’ll know that [they] better not mess with this person right here because she’s not going to take no stuff off of you,” Hunt said. “And I had to fight.”

It was a morning like any other. Hunt ate a simple breakfast of toast and hot chocolate. She headed to her locker to collect her biology book before class.

Suddenly, she was surrounded. The boys began pushing each other into Hunt, who had finally had enough.

“I just felt like fighting,” she said. “I took that biology book and I started beating [one of the boys] with that book.

“We heard someone yelling, ‘Fight, fight, fight,” she continued. “So I walked off and I got to my homeroom class.”

After that, things began to change.

“I was the winner there,” Hunt said. “[After that] the kids were a little more friendly.” 

Debby Blackman was always friendly to Hunt. Debby, a white classmate, would drive Hunt to school and have her over to her house for tacos – but only after Debby’s father was asleep, as he did not approve of the friendship.

One day, however, Debby received a letter stating that “if she continued to pick those [N-words] up, they were going to bomb her car,” Hunt said. “She showed the letter to us.”

Hunt’s parents advised Debby not to pick Hunt up any longer, for her own safety. Despite Debby’s objections, the carpooling ended. But Hunt’s love and admiration for her friend never did. 

“I’ll always remember Debby,” Hunt said. 

While she had to fight to make a statement early on at North Charleston, as a junior, Hunt used her voice – an even more powerful tool than her biology book, and one she would wield the rest of her life for change.

In Ms. Harper’s government class, the students were asked to speak about how the government affects them. Hunt knew this was her moment.

Standing in front of the entire class, she spoke about integration. She asked why none of her white classmates made an effort to visit the Black community in North Charleston, or learn more about their cohorts as people.

“I said, ‘If I cut my finger, it’s bleeding red blood, just like your blood,’” Hunt recalled. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I am not contagious.

“At the end, the teacher and the class gave me a standing ovation for my speech because I let them know, this is it,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere, so you might as well accept [that].”

Hunt had her first captivated audience, but it wouldn’t be her last. She became a class representative in the school’s student government. She played powderpuff football. She joined the Future Homemakers of America club.

“We needed to be represented, too,” she said.

Kathy Hunt and her boyfriend Elijah “Cal” Morrison got involved in activism together.

During the 1969 Charleston hospital strike – which occurred due to poor working conditions, poor pay and poor treatment of Black hospital workers – Hunt and Morrison marched for justice. She would volunteer to help Civil Rights activists Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Hosea Williams and others as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to be part of making a difference for those in need.

“Kathy used to come down and do work for them, as well as myself,” Morrison said. “At that time, we didn’t really realize the significance of these folk, and how they would, through their works, how they would impact our trajectory. Change our life.”

Hunt would talk about how difficult it was, being part of a movement in a place where she had to fight for even a modicum of respect. In Morrison, she had a confidant who knew her experience all too well.

Morrison went to nearby Rivers High School, which was also being integrated, to play basketball, finding that he may have a better chance at playing at Rivers. He caught Hunt’s eye while playing against North Charleston, and the two began having deep conversations about their shared experiences.

“We talked a lot about what was going on,” Morrison said. “Why were we being treated the way we were? Why do, you know, people just hate us? I mean, we had no power. They had all the power over us.”

As Morrison drove Hunt to her senior prom – taking place at a then-still segregated country club that opened its doors to the handful of Black students at North Charleston for the night – the two began being chased.

“We were going across a bridge,” Morrison said. “There were these white guys behind us, just harassing us, blowing the horns and whatnot. I can remember speeding up a little bit, and the ground was a little wet. … I remember the wheels of the tires spinning [and getting stuck] when I accelerated to try to get away from them. I will always remember that.

“It’s just, hey, there they go again,” he said. “For some reason, they hate us. They still hate us and they don’t want us around. They don’t want us in their space. They don’t want us around them. They don’t want us to assimilate. They were the whites and we were the [N-words].”

The fear in the car was palpable between Hunt and Morrison.

“You’d heard stories of Blacks that just don’t make it out when they go in that space,” Morrison said. “They just don’t make it out.”

Her high school experience took its toll physically, as well. Hunt began suffering from debilitating headaches on the top of her head. 

Her doctor said they were caused by stress, most likely related to the pressure of being part of the integration process, and said she should not go to college so she could alleviate the stress of schooling in the Deep South.

“I’m going to get me an education,” Hunt said. “I wasn’t going to let nobody tell me that I couldn’t.”

Hunt enrolled in the College of Charleston, with the goal of earning a degree in elementary education. While in college, she married Charles “Chuck” Hunt, and started a family, putting her education on hold – but only temporarily. After moving to Pittsburgh, PA, and then Knoxville, TN, the Hunts moved back to South Carolina, but this time to Columbia, the home of the University of South Carolina.

As a 30-year-old student at South Carolina, Hunt continued her activism. She was a member of the NAACP. She caucused in the presidential primary for Jesse Jackson. She took her two children, Bryan and Shakira, to march for African-American rights. And she graduated with a degree in applied sciences and a minor in personnel management. 

Hunt and her family moved to Oviedo in 1991.

Her activism always included advocating for her children.

When her son’s middle school in Columbia asked him to be in a performance wearing stereotypical blackface, in the late 1980s, Hunt immediately stepped in. 

“I’m [saying to myself], ‘The devil is alive,’” Hunt said. “If you want that, then you put your face out there. But he will not be doing this. I said, ‘Y’all have the opportunity to change this, but if you don’t, I am going to call every news station in Columbia, S.C., and y’all are going to know that I’ve been through this school and this is not going to happen.’

“So they’re going, ‘Well, that’s the way it was,’” she said. “I said, ‘Well, that might’ve been the way it was, but the blackface, no, you are not going to [do] that. Relearn your history behind [blackface]. And my child would not be doing it, and no other Black child at the school is going to be doing it.’”

Bryan went to the event dressed as baseball star Rickey Henderson. Without stereotypical blackface.

Hunt and her family moved to Oviedo in 1991 after her husband was transferred for work. It only took about a year for her to get involved in activism in the city.

She joined the local activist group, the Oviedo Kiwanis Knights, which was trying to be the voice for and to the underserved community in Oviedo. The group wasn’t solely focused on the Black community; they wanted to help everyone, Hunt said.

The Knights would hold fundraisers to raise money to mentor local students through Take Stock In Children and help them be able to attend college. Hunt became a mentor to a white student. 

“I liked him a lot, and he seemed like he liked me,” she said. “I would meet with him and talk about school.”

All of a sudden, the student stopped showing up to their meetings. Hunt was at a loss as to why, until an administrator let her know.

“The mother found out that I was Black, and she did not want any Blacks mentoring her son,” Hunt said. “She would rather give up the possibility of her son receiving money, helping him to go college.

“It’s because [I am] Black, and she did not want any Black mentors mentoring her child,” she said.

As a member of the Knights, Hunt and her colleagues began inserting themselves into the political scene in Oviedo, to ensure everyone had a voice. Through the Knights, she learned about OCIA, whose “mission is to aid, encourage, and foster community improvements and participation of low income families in Central Florida,” according to its website. She was brought in by local activist Orian “Lump” Boston. 

“He was saying, ‘Mrs. Hunt, you just moved here. The way you get to know people in the community, you need to come and join our organization,’” she said. “I liked what they were saying. [But] I wasn’t well-received the first night because I wasn’t homegrown. 

“I had a lot to say,” she added. “I would raise my hand and I was going, ‘Can we do this? And I see this. … As an outsider looking in, maybe we need to do this and that.’”

When Hunt saw an opportunity to have a parade for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, she worked with the city to put on a full slate of events, and took on the director role for it, helping turn it into the spectacle it is today

When OCIA wanted to put up a monument to honor Dr. King in Round Lake Park, Hunt was met with opposition.

“It was like pulling teeth to get the city to partner with us to do the monument,” she said. “They had all kinds of concerns as to what could happen. It could be vandalized.

“Now, you are stereotyping because it’s sitting in the Black community, if you will.”

Hunt pushed forward and the monument was erected in 2014. It has never been vandalized, she said.

The Dr, Martine Luther King Jr. monument was erected in Round Lake Park. Photo by Eric Orvieto.

“She doesn’t take no for an answer,” McKinney said. “She will just try to find another avenue and say, ‘OK, if we can’t do this, what can we do?’

“You would always see that happy little smile on her face,” McKinney added. “But don’t let that smile fool you. If you want something done, she’s going to get it done. She’s our diva.”

Similarly, when George Floyd was killed in May 2020, Hunt joined with the local Black Lives Matter group to march at Oviedo on the Park, even giving a speech as a representative for OCIA. Hunt worked with Oviedo Police Chief Dale Coleman to help build a stronger relationship between the police and the community. Hunt is now a board member for the Oviedo Police Foundation, helping officers in need.

“I said that we’ve got to learn to be proactive,” Hunt said. “We can quote Dr. King all day long, but unless there’s action behind the quotes, then you are doing nothing.”

While Hunt still sees a lot of work to be done in terms of expanded community engagement and affordable housing to help the underserved in Oviedo, she is proud of the changes she has been a part of. And she plans to continue making progress. 

“It’s an inner thing within me,” Hunt said. “I am at my highest good when I’m active in the community, no matter what it is.

“I just love being involved, and I just realized that’s probably my calling,” she added. “People get called into the ministry, but my ministry is to [give back] and see the satisfaction of things happening in the community.”

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