Greenwood Yesterday & Today

Floyd and Mamie Nicholson have made a life out of helping grow the culture and community of Greenwood County with a passion specifically for helping the youth.

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While Greenwood has changed

through the decades, it has held on to its culture of caring and community. Two people who are known for their dedication to the community are Mamie Nicholson, President of the Self Family Foundation, and her husband, former State Senator Floyd Nicholson.

“My passion is youth,” Mamie says, “anything that supports our youth in the Greenwood community and beyond—that's my heart.”

Floyd Nicholson is a former educator, coach, and public servant. “I'm very passionate about doing whatever I can to enhance the quality of life of other individuals,” he says.

They both grew up in Greenwood, in large families struggling to make ends meet but supporting each other with love and hope for the future.

Mamie grew up in a rural community of Greenwood County called the Promised Land, in a family of 10. “We didn't realize we were poor. We had as much as anybody else and, whatever we had, we shared it with everybody else. Whatever they had, they shared with us,” she says. “We grew up with people who represented the professional Black population in our community, the people who our families trusted to help mold us into who they wanted us to be, who they had not had the opportunity to be.”

Floyd’s father died when he was six, and his mother did domestic work to support their family of 10. His older sisters had to drop out of school to help support the family, but Floyd and two older brothers were able to go to college on athletic scholarships.

His mother was, always, his role model. “The care, the compassion, the love that she displayed to other people, although we didn't have anything…she went about it, just showing compassion, and instilled in us to always treat people the way you want to be treated. I didn’t want to fail and let her see the failure in me and the things that she had taught me. I want those to be emulated in my adult life.”

Mamie came to admire the well-dressed Black women who taught at her school. “It all goes back to seeing those ladies…who were able to model for other women and girls in the community what a professional woman should look like. I distinctly remember determining at a very young age, at the Promised Land Elementary School, that that's what I wanted to do.

“And in order to do that, I had to get an education.” 

After attending Brewer, the all-Black high school until the ninth grade, Mamie became part of the first fully integrated class at Greenwood High School. “That was a totally different environment for the members of my class. We had been in this sheltered community. That experience of being in the first fully integrated class was an interesting few years.”

Work and Opportunity

All of the children in Mamie’s family worked from the age of 12 or 13, cleaning houses or raking leaves. “Neither one of my parents graduated from high school. My daddy was a believer that if you graduated from high school, you'd done enough, that you should go to work. I decided long ago that that was not enough.”

In high school, she worked at a grocery store. After graduation, she worked third shift at Capsugel, midnight to 8 a.m., then went across the street to Piedmont Technical College for daytime classes. She had saved money and gotten grants to pay for school, but needed her parents to sign the paperwork. “Of course, my daddy wouldn't sign off. And so my mama and I did all the paperwork so I could get my associate’s degree.

“I graduated as an honor graduate, and had opportunities there that I had never had before in my life.” First runner-up in the Miss Piedmont Tech pageant, a member of  Phi Theta Kappa honor society and a leader of various organizations, she was able to hone her leadership skills for the next stage of life.

“That showed us that there were better things, opportunities available that we could take advantage of. I think that's what it takes to bring a child, to bring a family, out of a situation,” Mamie says.

For Floyd, a life-changing encounter with deadly violence steered him in the direction of politics and public service. He was a freshman at South Carolina State in 1968, when student protests over segregated businesses erupted into clashes with police. He was present the night of Feb. 8, when highway patrolmen opened fire on a group of student protesters, killing three and wounding 28 in what came to be called the Orangeburg Massacre.  

“I remember crawling on the ground thinking about it. It could have been me. What happened then drove me to get involved in politics,” Floyd says.

“I had anger about that and came to the realization that nothing you can do is gonna change what has happened. But what you can do is try to get involved to make sure it won't happen again. That's what drove me to get involved in politics. The bullets didn't have names. I could have been one of those shot down that night.”

His senior year in college, Floyd learned about a teaching job at Greenwood High School. “I was majoring in biology, but it was professional biology. I had not done the educational classes. I had not done student teaching, any of those things. I had never done a lesson plan. I didn't know what to expect. And I have never forgotten those first couple weeks every morning. I’d pray. I’d wish I was back in school, in college. How can I handle this? But after a few weeks, hey, I loved it.”

“I would tell my students, everybody cannot make all A's, but you can always do your very best. Your attitude is so important, how you conduct yourself at all times, how you conduct yourself when the adults are not around is what is important.”

“I was teaching five classes. I was assistant varsity football coach. I was head JV basketball coach. Coaches had to cut the grass in the summer. My salary was $7,200 a year.”

“Your experiences in life, what you go through, mold you into what type of individual you become as an adult. You cannot live in the past. You know, you don't have to forget it, but you have to let go. And there are so many people who cannot let go, and that's why they can't grow.” 

When Mamie graduated from Piedmont Tech, she took a job as a secretary at Greenwood Mills in 1977. Over the years, she worked her way through the HR and legal departments, then to the Self Foundation. 

“I jokingly tell people that we lived in a glass house, our entire married life, that everybody knew everything about us from day one,” Mamie says. “When you're in the public arena, like we have been for all of these years, everybody knows everything about you.” 

“I've been blessed to have people along the way who mentored me. I go back to the first day I came to work at Greenwood Mills. I came in, in my little brown Celica five speed, and came into the parking lot. I got in the elevator, and Mr. Self was in there. I had no idea who he was. I introduced myself to him and he said, ‘I know who you are.’ Then he said, ‘You need to slow down when you come into the parking lot.’

“And another reason he knew who I was—because there was nobody in the building that looked like me, other than the janitor and the maid.”

Mr. Self became her mentor, assigning her to scan newspapers for articles of interest to the textile industry. “I got an opportunity to grow that way,” she says. “And I often wonder if he didn't do that on purpose, just to give me a way to grow and to improve myself. For a little country girl growing up with no exposure to all of that, and for him to actually put that opportunity in front of me, that was one of his ways of grooming me for later [opportunities].”

Growth and Service

Three years after meeting at a Greenwood High School football game, they were married, and Mamie completed her bachelor’s degree. They had twin sons, then another son 13 years later. 

“We have a lot of fun. All of the things that we have been able to do has been a partnership.

There's no way I could have even dreamed or imagined where I would be now. I just feel like the hand of God was on us, [to] be this couple that was able to walk through this community and be able to do the things that we have been able to do.”

The Nicholson's were always involved parents, teaching their three boys about love and responsibility. “It's the small things. It's not about going to Europe,” Floyd says.

“Like he said, it’s the small things,” Mamie agrees,  “and being willing to let other people know that it's not easy. 

“He changed diapers. He got up at night. He did everything I did with those boys. And so they've always appreciated that he's always there, no matter what was going on. We never put any of these opportunities that we were so blessed with in the community ahead of our family life. And that's one thing that we are really proud of is that we did not.”

The rich experiences of their lives eventually led Floyd to enter politics. Floyd says, “It's just showing people that you care. I want to do whatever I can to enhance the quality of life for people. Because when you grow up experiencing certain things, you know what it's like, when you're experiencing what people are going through, when you don't have money to pay rent.”

After city council, Floyd was elected mayor, and then State Senator, where he served 4 terms. “We have differences, but that's what makes us strong when we all come together, because we all have things to offer.

“I think I was successful in politics because I respected all cultures. I wanted to bring people together. We learn from our past, but we don't live in it. We grow from it. ”

The Greenwood Difference

“The Greenwood community is really diverse in industry and healthcare and all different types of opportunities,” Mamie says. “Almost anything that you would want to do, I think you can find. We are unique, I think, for a community our size, to have all of the opportunities for employment, all of the opportunities to raise your family here.

“I was in an interview this morning with another foundation, out in Pennsylvania, that wanted to learn from us how we work with our community here in Greenwood, so they can do more place-based philanthropy. They were just amazed at the research that they had found on the Self Family Foundation and what it has meant to this community since 1942.”

“Greenwood is like any other community. We have problems, but I think the people here are willing to sit down together and try to solve the problems that we have,” Floyd says. 

“I do strongly believe that if it had not been for the Self Family Foundation and their vision for this community, that we would be like so many other textile towns,” Mamie says. “Mr. Self was a businessman who went out and recruited other industries to our community. He knew he would lose employees to those businesses. But he knew it would better our community as a whole. Having people who are willing to be unselfish, to take risks like that, to provide those opportunities and to look at our whole community, not just their little piece of it, and envision what our community can be like. I think that's beyond special.”

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