CHESTER — Alex Underwood guesses his cell phone has beeped with calls and text messages at least every two seconds.
When he walks down the street, drivers honk their horns. When he walks into restaurants, he receives standing ovations.
The day after Underwood, a petition candidate and retired agent with the State Law Enforcement Divison, was declared Chester Countys first black sheriff, he autographed a fathers campaign sign. The father, with his small son at his side, told Underwood, This is history.
Underwood, the latest in a long-line of political black pioneers in Chester, admitted: I hadnt even thought about it.
On Tuesday, Underwood captured more than 45 percent of votes, beating Democratic incumbent Sheriff Richard Smith and fellow petition candidate Robert Cauthen, a former Sheriffs Office chief deputy.
The atmosphere in Chester following his victory has been electrifying, Underwood said.
Im speechless, he said. Im humbled. Its an amazing accomplishment. Its just unbelievable.
Something else Underwood found unbelievable was meeting then-state Sen. Strom Thurmond when Underwood was a preteen. Underwoods father, Arthur Underwood Sr., started the countys housing authority alongside Thurmond.
When Thurmond went to Chester for a visit traveling in a limousine he took the Underwoods on ride through town. Thats when Thurmond spoke words to Alex Underwood that still resonate today.
Son, if you grow up to be half the man your daddy is, youll be a helluva man.
All these years later, Chesters first black sheriff has plans to live up to that counsel by helping as many people as he can, skin complexion aside.
Underwood began his public service as a volunteer fireman. In 1984, he joined the Chester County Sheriffs Office, starting as a patrol deputy and working up the ranks. He became a game warden for the Department of Natural Resources before joining SLED. He retired in 2010.
Underwood trained as a hostage negotiator with the SWAT team and fugitive hunter with the U.S. Marshals Task Force. He wants to require that deputies regularly exercise. He wants to use contacts he has made through the years to bolster deputies skill training and create partnerships with state agencies. He wants to affect the communitys youth by offering weeklong crash courses in state law enforcement agencies, ranging from SLED to the wildlife department.
The sheriffs salary is $57,130.
Underwoods qualifications alone were enough to convince 71-year-old William Mills to vote for him, and put his campaign signs his yard.
I dont care what color you are; as long as you treat the people right, said Mills, a black resident in the citys East Chester community.
I think hes going to try and clean up this place, Mills said referring to Chesters problems with drugs. Theres a lot of work to be done.
When Madeline Miles was growing up in Chester the thought of a black sheriff didnt register in my mind, she said.
Now, at 75, Miles said, Im just grateful. God has brought us through a lot of things.
A lifetime Chester resident, Miles said she hopes Underwood can help city authorities quell violence and positively affect the young people.
Miles said she remembers the efforts of Chris King and all he did to bring the city to another level.
Kings son, Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, says the same.
My father...set the stage not only for his family but for all minorities in Chester. He wanted people to know they can aspire to be anything they want to be, he said.
John King was 19 when his father became the mayor. He remembers his father experiencing opposition in a town historically known for segregation.
He and his siblings may have heard racial slurs from teachers and read editorials in the newspaper, but their parents never became discouraged.
The goal was showing that African Americans can be elected in Chester and be effective leaders when they are elected, John King said. We didnt see color or skin tones, he said, adding that his father felt black people were underserved in public office in Chester.
Chris Kings philosophy, his son said: If blacks are going to be a part of the community, we need to have a seat at the table.
Chris King, who also ran for school board and state Senate, waged a battle to the U.S. Supreme Court that fought for single-member districts in the county.
He fought and won, his son said.
His victory paved the way for districts that allowed people, such as the late George Benjamin Guy Sr., to occupy seats on county council. His wife, Mary Guy, now fills the seat Guy left vacant in District 5.
Underwoods victory speaks volumes for Chester County, said Mary Guy, currently the only black member of county council. Years ago, a black person could not win a countywide election. This is really different for Chester.
It also speaks volumes for voters, who Mary Guy said, dont...vote just on racial boundaries anymore, because Im sure he got a lot of white support, as well.
Born and raised in Chester, Mary Guy attended segregated schools. The county then wasnt unitied. Now, Chesters unified, she said.
In 1992, Calvin Gore ran for sheriff and lost. It was the first time, he said, that he saw how racist people could be in his hometown.
I am so happy for Alex, Gore said. Im sure he will be fair to everyone...not the good buddy system.
That system rubbed Gore the wrong way just four months ago when he said two sheriffs deputies were very disrespectful and unprofessional in their dealings with him.
They realy dont know how to talk to anyone, Gore said, adding that he went to Richard Smith about his complaints but they didnt seem to make a difference.
I think hell listen to people. I think hell try to run a good operation, said Carlisle Roddey, Chesters county supervisor and a friend of Underwoods family since the new sheriff was a child. He got a lot of the votes.
Blacks in Chester werent the only ones to support Underwood, Roddey said, adding that the candidate won over several white voters.
It wasnt overwhelming, Roddey said, but it was enough to carry him through. You had two white candidates running; he was able to muster the biggest majority of the African American vote and get part of the white vote, and thats what put him in there.
I think he will run...it in an unbiased way, showing no slack for black or white criminals, Roddey said. If they break the law, (Underwoods) going to put them in jail.
Jonathan McFadden 803-329-4082