Trey Ward did something amazing even though it was against the law. I’m proud to call him a friend.
“Hello, Oran? This is Trey. You’re not going to believe what I just did.”
The conversation that began that way I will never forget.
The voice on the phone was my friend Trey Ward calling to tell me he had gone down to Main Street in his hometown and removed plaques affixed to a monument honoring veterans of the World Wars.
“I think I violated the Heritage Act,” he said.
Though it was indeed a violation of state law to move or change a historical marker without approval of the legislature, Trey told me that night that he was prepared to go to jail the next day. To Trey, the plaques were an offense.
Those tablets of tarnished brass were an offense because of the way the veterans were classified—not by rank, or date of induction, or branch of service–but by race. There was a list of “white veterans” and a list of “colored” veterans. In the mind of someone, service had to be segregated.
Trey said he was tired of such a blatant symbol of racism besmirching Greenwood and its reputation. So, early one morning with no fanfare he replaced the plaques categorizing by race with fresh new ones carrying an alphabetical listing.
Then he waited for the sheriff to knock on his door. The knock never came.
John (“Trey”) Ward is in some ways an unlikely civil rights hero. He would tell you he is not what you would call sophisticated. He can’t name a single opera singer, he doesn’t own a tuxedo, he doesn’t watch Masterpiece Theatre, and he doesn’t extend his pinky when drinking tea. (He doesn’t even drink tea as far as I know unless it is cold and sweet.) He is also an accomplished Bluegrass musician and proud son of the South who traveled with his own band bearing the name The New Dixie Storm.
Trey is also not a liberal. We became friends helping build the Republican Party, and he was kind enough to second my nomination for Vice Chairman of the SC GOP in the 1990s. Like me, he came to Columbia from the Upstate to serve as a conservative in the government apparatus at a time when government in South Carolina needed free market and social conservative voices. Trey also ran a few political campaigns, all for Republicans who were hard right or center-right.
For many, Trey’s downhome demeanor and conservative principles make his bold, significant act surprising, even shocking. You see, to some, you can’t be a “good ole boy” and a defender of civil rights. But Trey forever buried that stereotype early that morning in Greenwood with a few twists of a screwdriver.
Trey’s passion on the issue of racial reconciliation is infectious. His voice rises as he describes veterans tested and even wounded in foreign wars who were forbidden from using the restroom on the bus ride back home to Greenwood, or eating in a public restaurant once they got home. No plaque or monument was going to celebrate segregation or prejudice. Not in his town. Not on his watch.
Trey Ward’s daring act was undertaken not long before the third anniversary of the horrible shootings at Mother Immanuel. That is fitting. His bold stroke honored those who professed Christ that day in the face of the utmost cruelty. I’m very proud of Trey and honored to call him friend.
If he needs a legal defense fund, I will let you know.
Photo: Used with permission. Adam Benson | Index-Journal
Dr. Oran Smith
Former President & CEO