As a strong proponent of minority education in a state that underfunded segregated black schools, Leevy pushed for the creation of Waverly Elementary School, Leevy Graded School (now Carver Elementary), and Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia.
Businessman, political activist. Leevy was born on May 3, 1876, in Antioch, Kershaw County. He graduated from Mather Academy in Camden and Hampton Institute in Virginia. After teaching school for a year in Lancaster, South Carolina, he moved to Columbia in 1907. Two years later, on June 23, 1910, he married Mary E. Kirkland, a fellow Kershaw County resident. The couple had four children.
In Columbia, Leevy opened a tailoring shop in 1907, and within three years this business blossomed into the Leevy Department Store, which he ran until 1930. Over the course of his career, Leevy was a founder and president of Victory Savings Bank and directed various business enterprises, including commercial hog farming, furniture sales, an auto repair shop, a beauty salon, a real estate company, and a service station. As the first African American–owned gas station in Columbia, Leevy’s station was an important stop for black travelers who were barred from white facilities during the Jim Crow era. His most enduring business was Leevy’s Funeral Home.
As a strong proponent of minority education in a state that underfunded segregated black schools, Leevy pushed for the creation of Waverly Elementary School, Leevy Graded School (now Carver Elementary), and Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia. In higher education Leevy helped to found the graduate school at South Carolina State College and served as a trustee of Claflin College.
Leevy faced his toughest challenges in politics. As a black Republican in a state then dominated by white Democrats, he ran unsuccessfully for the General Assembly twice and four times for Congress (in 1916, 1918, 1946, and 1954). In the 1940s Leevy battled the all-white South Carolina Democratic primary. “We are asking for the opportunity to exercise political rights as guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” Leevy asserted in 1944. “We are asking for representation in the corporation to which we pay taxes. . . . [We] want a share in the government. All we ask is for a man’s chance.”
A staunch civil rights advocate, Leevy helped found the Columbia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served on the board of directors for the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), directed by Martin Luther King, Jr. After half a century of Republican activism, Leevy became a Democrat in 1964. Passage of the Voting Rights Act the next year ushered in a new era of biracial politics in South Carolina that enabled Leevy’s grandson, I. S. Leevy Johnson, to become one of the first African American state legislators since Reconstruction.
Leevy died on December 9, 1968, and was buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Columbia. Though he did not live to see his grandson enter the General Assembly in 1970, the election was a fitting testimonial to Leevy’s quest for minority political representation in South Carolina.
Newby, I. A. Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.