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Rollins Edwards keeps audience spellbound

  • Saturday, July 26, 2014

Jim Tatum/Journal Scene Rollins Edwards holds a jar that contains some of his own skin that he lost due to military experiments testing chemical agents on African American soldiers during World War II.

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Soldier, statesman, jazz drummer – Rollins Edwards has done it all.

Edwards, 92, known around Summerville and beyond as quite the raconteur, kept his audience spellbound as he recounted some of the events of his own life during the Summerville Dorchester Museum’s special July Third Thursday program.

“Rollins Edwards is typical of many elderly Black Americans,” Ken Battle of Charleston Communities for Liberty said. “He has lots to tell and most of it is not written.”

Edwards is a man of many talents and experiences, with stories he could tell all day, Battle noted.

A gifted musician, Edwards played drums with a number of jazz greats, most notably Count Basie. Basie, he said, probably had the best big band in the country at the time.

Edwards, like many accomplished musicians, enjoyed playing gigs with such luminaries, but it was the impromptu jam sessions that would just sort of happen that he enjoyed most.

“They say all the good musicians came from places like New Orleans,” he said. “Not true. Many of the greats came from right around here, in Charleston. The greatest rhythm guitar player of all time, Freddie Green (Basie’s rhythm guitarist), came out of Charleston.”

A World War II veteran, he survived “The Testing,” which refers to repeated mustard gas, tear gas, and Lewisite exposure that he and other soldiers -- particularly African American and Japanese American soldiers -- endured while in the Army.

“That stuff will take your skin right off,” he said, holding up a small jar that actually holds some of his own skin, his personal proof of the results from exposure to these chemicals.

The soldiers would be exposed in a number of experiments, including being placed in gas chambers wearing protective clothing as well as through drills during which he and other soldiers would be subject to battlefield conditions, complete with real gas exposure.

Once, he said, the platoon was running through a set of the trenches when all of a sudden the lead soldier stopped dead in his tracks. The others piled into him, Edwards said.

“He stopped because right there at the turn was a great big rattlesnake – one of the biggest I’ve ever seen,” Edwards said. “He had fallen into the trench and couldn’t get out.”

The platoon sergeant, standing on the ground above, told the soldiers just to jump over the snake, Edwards said.

“I just knew I was going to jump and fall backward on that snake and die of a heart attack before he could bite me,” Edwards said.

Edwards survived the war and the Army and came home to Summerville, where he would become a successful businessman and politician, becoming the first African American to be elected to Dorchester County Council; he would also serve on Summerville Town Council.

Battle noted the enthusiastic reception and reaction of the audience to Edwards.

“He is a true treasure,” Battle said. “His desire is to tell his story and to educate people. We want to help him in this endeavor.”

The Summerville Dorchester Museum has similar programs planned for Third Thursday during the rest of the year. For more information call 875-9666.

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