Without a birth certificate, Rock Hill man may lose ability to drive and vote

ColumnistJune 5, 2011 

— John B. English is alive and living in Rock Hill, that he knows.

He has bills for rent and utilities and telephone and medications and food and more that sure take his money he gets from a disability check.

This is a man with few, if any, luxuries.

He knows he worked most of his adult life at the Hershey, Pa., chocolate factory after being born dirt-poor in rural Chester County.

English was born after World War II during a time when rural poor people, especially blacks, were born at home using a midwife whose regular job could have been that of a nursemaid or domestic.

It is proving when he was born that is the hard part for John English.

If he doesn't succeed within a couple of weeks, English could lose his ability to drive - and even vote.

U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney's office is helping English with what looks like a temporary fix, but the clock is ticking.

And who knows how many older people are out there in South Carolina - people whose births were never properly documented and who never have driven, so they never have had a photo identification - who will face this problem when a new voter identification law is enforced in the next set of elections?

John English does not have a birth certificate with his name on it.

One believed to be his, of an unnamed male child born to illiterate parents Johnie and Jeneva English in Chester County in 1947, has a birthdate of Jan. 19, 1947.

But John English's driver's license from Pennsylvania, and many records of his life including marriage license, medical records, and more, show his birthdate as June 19, 1947.

Other records show other birthdates. At least eight documents reflect different birthdates.

So English has spent years - especially the last few since returning to South Carolina after leaving the chocolate factory with a back injury - trying to get a birth certificate.

English moved back to this area because, simply, "I was born here and I am gonna die here. This is where I come from, and where I will leave from."

But English is frustrated.

"I have worked hard all my life," English said. "My parents worked hard, but they couldn't read or write. I wasn't born in any hospital. I moved away to Pennsylvania to stay with an aunt and learned how to read when I was 13 years old. I got my GED in 1987.

"I sure was born; I'm still here."

English, as far as he knows, was born in an old tin house just south of the York County line in a place called Smith Turnout. His parents, long dead, sharecropped as best they could with six kids who survived.

But his parents were living in segregated South Carolina that had raised them without any schooling at all.

"We were very poor," English said. "So poor you didn't know where the next meal was coming from, if there was a next meal."

That's why the records for John English's life are spotty, at best.

"It wasn't their fault. They had no chance at schooling," English said. "All they ever did was work in the fields."

The family lived for a time in Rock Hill, on Flint Street Extension, school records from those segregated times show. On those records, English's birthdate is never the same.

It also was not uncommon for black children, and poor whites, too, in those days to miss weeks of school because families needed help with work in the fields.

"Plenty of times I left (school), we all did, until the cotton was picked," English said.

A record from the first grade at the old Edgewood School in Rock Hill shows English's birthdate as March 25, 1947.

In third grade at two schools, English's birthdate is listed as April 1, 1944, and July 20, 1947. In fourth grade, his birthdate is shown as May 18, 1948.

"I sure wasn't born four different times," English said. "I don't know, but I bet my parents gave any date so I could go to school the little bit that I could."

Even the federal Social Security office has a different birthdate from English's childhood, from July 1946.

After moving to Pennsylvania where an aunt agreed to take him in, John learned to read and found a job at the chocolate factory.

He worked his way up through 33 years, always using June 19, 1947, as his birthdate on pay records and tax records and a marriage license and driving records and anything else he needed. He and his wife raised five kids before she died of cancer.

Like so many people, English felt the pull of home. Once home, he tried to get a birth certificate with his name on it.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which handles vital records, found a birth certificate that showed an unnamed male child born Jan. 19, 1947, to Johnie and Jeneva English in Chester County.

The certificate, though, from a time in 1947 when rural kids were born at home, claims to have been filed the same day, Jan. 19, 1947.

"How could a midwife, so far out in the country, have helped with a birth and registered that birth the same day in 1947 when nobody in those days had cars or phones?" wondered Pam Matlock, English's fiancée of three years.

As for his proper date of birth, English does not know whether Jan. 19, 1947, or June 19, 1947, is correct.

Or really, any other date.

"How would I know?" English said. "What I want right now is a birth certificate with my name on it. Period."

English has sent in countless forms and documents to DHEC. He has paid a company DHEC uses to help him, but still no luck.

DHEC officials declined to discuss English's case specifically, but a spokesman said concerns of identity theft are the reason for such stringent requirements.

"We have to be extra vigilant in protecting the security of all South Carolinians' birth certificates because it is the 'golden key' to identity theft," DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said. "That's why we make sure that the right person is making changes to - and being issued the right - birth certificate."

Adding a name to an existing birth certificate is "not really that difficult," Myrick said. A person has to provide documentation that is at least five years old.

Many of English's documents are more than five years old. His marriage license is from 1968, for example. But so far, what English has provided is not enough for DHEC, and so many documents have different dates of birth on them.

Without proper documentation that DHEC approves, a person would have to initiate a Family Court action - file a civil lawsuit - to get any changes.

"How am I, on a fixed income, disabled, supposed to pay a lawyer for that?" English wondered.

English's situation - midwife births from decades ago that did not receive proper documentation - are not uncommon, according to both DHEC and Jeffrey Sligh, who handles constituent services for Mulvaney and did the same job for U.S. Rep. John Spratt before Mulvaney took office.

Sligh, after hearing of English's situation, met with him Thursday to see if anything can be done to remedy the situation. A court order likely would be needed for any permanent solution, he said.

But in the short term, Sligh has persuaded the state Department of Motor Vehicles to issue English a temporary driver's license Monday until a solution is found.

"What we have gained is some time to try to help Mr. English get this resolved once and for all," Sligh said Friday.

That extension is vital for English.

Without a valid driver's license, his only picture ID, and because he has no birth certificate with his name on it to get a photo ID, English won't be able to vote, thanks to the new voter identification law.

"I am a man," English said. "I am right here, but it is almost now like I will cease to exist because I can't prove I was born.

"As a citizen of this country, I think I have proved who I am."

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