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Meet the mayor

Drakeford’s journey to city hall started on family farm

Posted: February 9, 2017 5:24 p.m.
Updated: February 10, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

Camden Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford sits in the chair she prefers to use, instead of the one behind her desk, while talking with staff, constituents and others in her office at Camden City Hall. Drakeford, who spent three terms on Camden City Council before being elected mayor in November, grew up on a family farm north of Camden off S.C. 97. As she did during her campaign, Drakeford said she continues to be focused on community safety, attracting good paying jobs to Camden and improving roads in the city.

Eschewing the high-back chair behind her desk at Camden City Hall, recently elected Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford chose a chair near her office’s door. She said it is a more comfortable and relaxed way to meet with staff, constituents and others. A moment earlier, City Manager Mel Pearson sat in a similar chair near the window as they discussed city business.

The chairs, desk, window and office are a lifetime removed and yet not so physically distant from where she started.

Alfred Mae Briggs was born in New Jersey to parents who were both originally from the Camden area. They moved back to the area when she was around 1 to 1-1/2 years old. They lived on her grandfather’s farm off S.C. 97, near White Oak Creek. Neal Switch Road is named for her maternal grandfather; Neal is her mother’s maiden name.

“There wasn’t a lot of work for black people here back then, so my mother -- who attended Boylan-Haven-Mather Academy -- went away to New Jersey during the summer leading up to her senior year,” Drakeford said.

She met and married Drakeford’s father, and had two children, a son and then a daughter.

“My mom wanted her first child named after her father, Alfred, but my father said, no, it had to be after him,” Drakeford said.

So, the first-born son was named George Jr. When the daughter came along, they named her Alfred Mae.

“I hated my name,” she said. “I was teased with people calling me Alfalfa or something, anything but Alfred, and I asked my mom, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ And she said, ‘Well, you can always change your name.’”

And for $25, she could have but never did. She is now glad she didn’t, especially after doing some genealogical research in recent years.

“I found out there has always been an Alfred in my mother’s family. I’m the last one,” Drakeford said.

She has continued to work on the family’s genealogy, but it is difficult for African-Americans. They do not figure into census counts until 1870, the furthest back she has been able to go.

“I know my great-great-grandfather was from Virginia. His name was Claiburn. He was on the 1870 Census, but not the 1880,” Drakeford said.

She did, however, undergo DNA testing, which revealed genetic ties to Cameroon on the west side of Africa whose coast lies on the Gulf of Guinea.

Drakeford also learned the house she grew up in was a plantation owner’s farm house. Unfortunately, she didn’t learn that until it had fallen in from disrepair.

The family grew cotton, corn, peas and tobacco -- “Whatever; we did all of it. We did a lot of work from sunup to sundown and there would still be more to do,” Drakeford remembered.

Up until ninth grade, she attended Kirkland Elementary School, which was what Baron DeKalb Elementary School was called prior to desegregation. Drakeford and her classmates were only supposed to stay at Kirkland through the eighth grade, but Jackson High School, from which she graduated in 1962, didn’t offer ninth grade classes. So, they spent their ninth grade year at Kirkland.

“Back then, we didn’t know anything about student loans or grants,” Drakeford said. “My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college, but I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on a farm.”

So, she put herself through a cosmetology school in Sumter and ended up graduating as valedictorian. When she finished, she spent five years working at a beauty shop on Rutledge Street.

By then, she had already met and married who she said was “kind of” her high school sweetheart. Ernest Drakeford Jr. was actually a year behind Alfred Mae at Jackson High. Despite having already graduated, she attended his senior prom. They married in 1966 and celebrated their 50th anniversary last year.

They have one daughter, Kimberly. She and her husband, who recently retired from the military, in turn, have given the Drakefords one granddaughter, 8-year-old Sydney. Kimberly, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics and an additional masters in education, is a former college math professor. The couple lives in Henderson, Nev., outside Las Vegas.

Back in the mid-1960s, Alfred Mae and Ernest were making plans. They wanted to build a house and she wanted it to include a beauty shop. But, they needed money and that meant jobs. So, they both applied to DuPont. Alfred Mae and then Ernest took the application tests, passed them and got hired, her first and him immediately afterward.

Focused on their dreams, the couple saved and sacrificed. A year and a half later, Drakeford was offered a promotion to be supervisor of her graveyard shift crew.

“I was promoted on a Friday and attended orientation that Monday morning. I was the first black female supervisor and I was thrown into that environment. Not all of them were happy I was there,” Drakeford said, referring to her new all-male colleagues.

In addition, her now subordinate crew mates didn’t want her sitting with them either because she was now one of “them.”

“There were times when I wanted to (quit), but I knew that would make it harder for the next person,” she said.

Despite the wary feelings, she said her first crew was a “great” one and, unlike most other supervisors, Drakeford decided to work alongside them.

“We were always No. 1 in regards to (performance) parameters, but I wasn’t getting promoted (further),” she said.

Drakeford learned DuPont was only promoting employees with college degrees, or at least, that’s what she was told. She enrolled at the University of South Carolina (USC) hopping from campus to campus in order to take the classes she needed around her work schedule.

She attended classes four nights a week, earning her first 60 credits during shift work, having others cover for her and then making it up to them later. Then, she was able to get dayshift work, allowing her to take night classes without impeding her work.

When Drakeford hit 87 credit hours, she thought about quitting again, but her husband urged her to take the summer off. She did, managing to earn her bachelor’s degree in business administration in three and a half years from USC’s School of Management. The late South Carolina astronaut Ron McNair was the keynote speaker. That was August 1984. Drakeford received her promotion in September.

“I was now responsible for the whole area, not just one crew,” she said.

Drakeford would continue to move through the company and up the ladder, in the areas of training and development and quality assurance. She led the company through both ISO 9000 certification and mechanizing the packing process at the Lugoff plant.

Drakeford worked for DuPont for a total of 33 years, taking an early retirement.

“They were good to me and I was good for them,” she said.

Since then, Drakeford has been involved with a large number of organizations, both before and after entering politics. They include the Santee-Lynches Regional Council of Government, United Way of Kershaw County, Kershaw County Habitat for Humanity, National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, Boys and Girls Club Advisory Board, Municipal Association of South Carolina, Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce, Kershaw County Housing Partnership, a hunger/homelessness committee, human development and small cities councils, Women in Municipal Government and Camden Rotary.

In 2000, Drakeford earned the Kershaw County Humanitarian of the Year Award. She was also recognized as a Woman of Distinction by the Girl Scouts of South Carolina; earned the Regional Trail Blazer Award for South Carolina, Florida and Georgia; and honored by the United Way with the Jack F. Watson Award.

At one point, Drakeford thought of running for the Kershaw County Board of School Trustees.

“But once Kimberly graduated from (high) school, that didn’t seem as important,” Drakeford said, instead joining the different organizations with which she would volunteer. “Then I noticed there were no blacks on (city) council, so I was wondering who was putting our issues on the table.”

Drakeford decided to put her DuPont experience with budgets and training to work for the city. She was first elected in 2004.

“After my third term, I thought I wouldn’t run for re-election, but then I felt, as mayor, I could represent the whole city,” she said.

Drakeford won by 24 votes.

With a couple of months in the mayor’s office, Drakeford said she is still focused on such issues as revitalizing the old Bi-Lo shopping center, which would have to be annexed for the city to have any control; the old Piggly Wiggly shopping center currently owned by the Health Services District of Kershaw County; the former Winn-Dixie near city hall; and, working with the county, the former home of K-Mart.

And, the platform on which she campaigned, Drakeford said she is still committed to improving community safety, attracting good paying jobs and improving roads.

“I just want to see something happening,” she said.

Drakeford soon got up from the chair near the door. 

It was time to get ready for another meeting as the newest mayor of Camden.

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