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Lonnie Hamilton, III: A Lowcountry Icon

asmith Feb 19, 2013

hamiltonFor more than fifty years, Lonnie Hamilton, III has dedicated his time and efforts to making Charleston a better place.  He has shaped the minds of youth – serving for 20 years as an educator and Band Director at Bonds-Wilson High School; he has served his community – becoming the first African American elected to the Charleston County Council, and later, the first African American Council Chair; and he has inspired and entertained – performing as a member of the world-renown Jenkins Orphanage Band, and as a professional alto saxophonist and clarinetist and member of various bands, including Lonnie Hamilton and the Diplomats. 

Hamilton has been called a legend and the embodiment of Charleston’s rich jazz legacy; and on Friday, February 22, he will serve as a featured speaker at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum’s Black History Month symposium, “Jenkins, Jazz and Jammin’ in Times of War and Peace.”

Before he went on to achieve distinction as an educator, celebrated public official and professional musician, Lonnie Hamilton, III faced humble beginnings. 

“I grew up in impoverished area as a young child, so breaking out of that mold and trying to make something out of myself was important,” Hamilton recalled. 

It wasn’t easy. Burke High School – built in 1911 – was the only high school in the area for African American students.  Unfortunately for Hamilton, his family lived outside city limits.

“I had to lie about my address in order to get high school education and to go to Burke High School,” he said. “If you asked the school where I lived, they’d tell you ‘128 Congress Street,’” he added.  “I never spent one night in that house; but I knew the people and I asked permission to use their address so that I might get a high school education.”

Inspired by watching the Jenkins Orphanage Band parade down Spring Street to Broad Street on Saturday afternoons, Hamilton saw music as the key to his future success. 

He was in the ninth grade when his grandfather gave him a saxophone. 

“One Christmas, he asked what I’d like as a gift and I told him, ‘I’d like to have a saxophone.’  He didn’t know what it was; but he agreed to give me a saxophone and that was my opportunity to break out of the shell,” Hamilton said.  “I started taking private lessons after Christmas and by the end of the year, I was prepared to enter the regular band program.” 

This preparation gave him confidence early on and opened doors.

“Entering high school, you go in not knowing what to expect; however, I found out that when I became affiliated with the [Jenkins Orphanage] Band, it was like being a member of a family,” Hamilton said. “It gave me opportunities I never thought I would have. My saxophone would take me places like nothing else.”

And it did. After high school, Hamilton was offered a music scholarship to attend South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. 

He played music throughout his time in College and went on to serve as the Band Director at Sims High School for two years before being invited to serve as Band Director at Barnes-Wilson High School – a position he held for 20 years. 

“I went to college and I came back and was successful with the Bonds-Wilson High School Band – known up and down the East Coast for excellent band students,” he recalled, adding that one of his proudest achievements was being able to give back and help others.

“Music opened a lot of doors for me; but I was able to open doors for a lot of people,” Hamilton said, noting that he was able to get 131 students scholarships who would never have had a chance otherwise.

 “Some went on to become band directors; one went on to the FBI and another to the CIA,” he said.  “Some of them had never been to the City of Charleston but they lived only eight miles from the city limit, so to be able to see that and to give them that opportunity was great. Then, when integration came in 1970 and the band was integrated, I helped to get white kids scholarships because the quality of instruction and benefits were the same for all the students involved.”

His commitment to serving the Charleston community didn’t stop with his music students.  Hamilton served for more than 20 years as a Charleston County Council Member – elected in 1970 as the first African American in the County’s history to hold such office, and serving twice as Charleston County Council Chair.

“Poor people had few ways to get anything they needed and I was able to serve them,” he said, noting his efforts to bring recycling to Charleston and a Triage Unit to the County Hospital during his tenure as some of his proudest achievements.

Today, the interchange of Interstate 526 and 26 bears his name, as does the Charleston County office building.  In 2003, his former students from Bonds-Wilson High School formed the charitable Lonnie Hamilton, III Foundation, which focuses on educational achievement.

It is clear the Lowcountry would not be what it is today without the tireless efforts of Lonnie Hamilton, III; and his work isn’t done. 

On Friday, February 22, Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum will welcome Lonnie Hamilton aboard the USS Yorktown to participate in a program in celebration of Black History Month, “Jenkins, Jazz and Jammin’ in Times of War and Peace.”  The program is free and open to the public and begins at 10 a.m.

In attendance will be students from across the Lowcountry, many of whom are current music students; and the program will be streamed live on the Patriots Point website (www.patriotspoint.org) and into Charleston County School District classrooms.

The symposium will focus on the Jenkins Orphanage Band, which got its start in Charleston, South Carolina in the late 1800s, and Hamilton’s recollections as a former band member.  Hamilton will be joined by Charleston’s first lady of jazz, Mrs. Ann Caldwell for performances throughout the program; and special discussions with executive director of the Jenkins Institute for Children, Mrs. Johanna Martin-Carrington.

Together, this distinguished panel will lead the audience on a historical journey through Charleston’s rich jazz history with insightful discussion and unforgettable musical performances covering periods ranging from the Civil War through present-day.

“The program is a chance to expose people who are not familiar with what happened in the past – musically and with Jenkins [Orphanage Band],” Hamilton said.  “I hope it will give them a broader understanding of the role that Jenkins and Burke played in building music in this community and up and down the East Coast.”



What:               “Jenkins, Jazz and Jammin’ in Times of War and Peace” Educational Symposium 

When:               Friday, February 22 at 10 a.m.

Where:              USS Yorktown Smokey Stover Theater

Price:                FREE to public and will be streamed live on Patriots Point website

For More Info:   www.patriotspoint.org



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