A Life Well Lived
Late Greenhill Road neighborhood community leader, entreprenuer lived a life of principle, progress
By Charlie Morrison
James Island lost a legend last month, with the passing of Greenhill Road neighborhood matriarch and entreprenuer Virginia “Evie” Smalls. Smalls passed away at the age of 87, surely a long life by any standard. Smalls’ life, in addition was a life well-lived. Since “Evie,” as she was lovingly called, was born back in 1926, much has changed in the lives of African-Americans here in the Holy City. Evie Smalls embodied that change, overcoming obstacles only those of color can truly understand. Poverty, a lack of education, an unwelcoming social atmosphere, none proved insurmountable for entreprenuer Evie Smalls. It is for that reason that we here at The James Island Messenger have opted to wrap up our four-part series honoring Black History Month with her story.
Virginia “Evie” Smalls was known throughout the Lowcountry first and foremost as a businesswoman. She got her start helping her mother Harriet Scott selling vegetables wholesale on the Charleston Market. The mother and daughter team would rise before the sun every morning to bring fresh John’s Island produce to the market. In those days, vegetable buyers from Lowcountry grocery stores would assemble at the market in the mornings to buy their day’s offerings from vendors like Evie and Harriet. In those days, things were different.
To call the time in which Evie Smalls grew up only ‘different,’ however, is to do it a great disservice. By the time she started working at what became known as Virginia’s Veggie Stand, Evie Smalls was a independent, young twenty-something. Unlike twenty-somethings of contemporary days, however, Evie couldn’t read or write. Evie knew no aritithmatic. Her birthday, her age, even the day she was married were days of note to Evie, but in those days with records detailing the principal events in the lives of African-American families being scarce to non-existant, Evie grew up as a woman who didn’t know her place in time. These impediments affected all Blacks of the time. In Smalls’ case, they proved only to be just that, impediments.
It wasn’t long after she began helping her monther with the vegetable business that the operation was Evie’s to manage. Building on relationships with Johns Island farmers her mother Harriet had years ago established, Evie expanded the business.
When the business model of local grocery chains like the Piggly Wiggly changed, with stores cutting out brokers like Evie and her mother Harriet, Smalls rolled with the punches, forging new partnerships with suppliers of a wider variety of products.
The decades marched on, and with them, did Evie herself and her business. Utilizing a style of grassroots, face-to-face networking, Evie evolved with the times, harvesting new product offerings according to the season and acquiring others through dealmaking. As daughter Rosa Chisolm fondly recalls, Evie Smalls utilized the gift of gab to her advantage.
“She could talk her way in or out of anything,” chuckles Chisolm in rememberance. “She was the primary breadwinner, and she used her ability to talk with people to get things done. If she ever did a deal with someone, she told them ‘they would never regret it,’ and they didn’t. That’s how she got people to trust her.”
Virginia’s Veggie Stand still carries on today, though admittedly, it’s not the family market of Evie’s youth. The question of Evie Smalls’ legacy, however, revolves not around the success of the entreprenuer but that of the mother.
If you were to ask Evie Smalls about her legacy, the conversation would likely turn to the topic of education. In her eight children, she preached responsibility and self respect above all else, borne out through education. “She told us all by the time we’d come of age that we had to graduate from high school,” says Chisolm. “She called it her 12-year custody plan.”
With Virginia’s Veggie Stand is now staffed by the fifth generation from her family, and all eight of Evie’s children having long ago successfully graduated from high school, the plan is clearly still in place.
© 2013 Wiser Time Publishing