Celebrating Summerville’s Black History: Bailey
When students at Alston Graded School and later Alston High School heard the clicking of high-heeled shoes coming down the hallways, they knew to stand up straight, fix their hair and stop horsing around.
Mrs. Clemmie S. Bailey was coming down the hallway and she meant business.
“She commanded respect,” said Beverly Riley, a friend and sorority sister. “The children respected her, and even after all these years, it’s her students who’ve proposed her name for the new school.”
Bailey, who was born Feb. 27, 1907, started out as a teacher at Alston and later became principal of the elementary school and, after integration, of the seventh grade. “She was so soft, so gentle, but she had a presence. She was very firm and made sure she was heard,” said soror Alice West.
Bailey was a unique woman for her time – not only because she exemplified the high standards of excellence she held her students to – but also because of her background.
A Florence, S.C., native, Bailey was the daughter of a doctor. The benefits of her father’s occupation were both financial and health-related; as a child Bailey was diagnosed with “infantile paralysis,” or polio. She had a limp her whole life, according to friends, but it was hardly noticeable.
Bailey completed primary school in Florence, but had to travel to the South Carolina State University campus to finish high school. Later she graduated from S.C. State and also eventually earned her master’s degree. In 1943, during her undergraduate college career, she joined Zeta Phi Beta sorority.
She came to Summerville afterward, possibly to join her brother who had recently taken a job as a minister at a local church, said family-friend Carolyn Howard.
Her husband was Firmwood D. Bailey, who worked for North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company. The couple’s only child, Phillip, was adopted, possibly from a relative.
Bailey had a unique opportunity to advance her education, but “she didn’t flaunt it. She just advocated for education and moving forward in life through education,” West said.
In the 1980s Bailey helped found the Lambda Nu Zeta chapter of Zeta Phi Beta, so alumnae sisters could continue their involvement with the sorority locally.
“We called her ‘Ma Bailey’ affectionately because she was always acting like everyone’s mother or grandmother,” soror DaNine Fleming said. “She lived in a huge house and we had our meetings there. She would always let you do whatever or have whatever you wanted as long as you ‘just don’t get into any badness,’ she used to say.”
Her commitment to continuing education was so strong she left Lambda Nu Zeta money after her death in 1996, at 89 years old, stipulating the accrued interest be used to finance an education scholarship for local students.That scholarship is still operating today.
“We make sure that [recipient] knows the story behind the scholarship and to pay it forward,” said Fleming. “It’s amazing, this person has been touching the lives of children from the 1940s all the way through 2014. It’s just profound.”
But her friends said they expect nothing less of Bailey, even after death; that’s just the kind of woman and community leader she was.
“She was a role model for teachers, students and other principals, and not just in the African American community. She had vision long before her time,” said West. “Education goes beyond just standing in the classroom and that’s how Ma Bailey was.”