Leave it to the Woman’s Club of Rock Hill – one of the oldest and most generous civic groups ever in York County, with a history of caring for the people of this city – to turn the ugliness of violence into something beautiful.
On Wednesday afternoon, next to the club’s stately home in a historic building on Aiken Avenue near Winthrop University, this group of ladies dedicated a butterfly garden not named for violence, but for justice – the Eric Joseph Justice Garden.
Eric Joseph, 49, did all the heavy lifting for the woman’s club for a quarter-century. He worked for Angel Insurance down the street. He was dependable and trustworthy, and a friend to anybody who ever met him. But on Valentine’s Day, he was left dead on the side of West Main Street in Rock Hill just yards from his house in a killing that remains unsolved.
“We call this the Eric Joseph Justice Garden, because it is dedicated to justice for everybody,” said Woman’s Club president Ellen Mayes, who invited families of recent acts of violence to be part of an outpouring of love.
Peggy Angel – who claims to be one of the “old ladies” of the Woman’s Club – spoke of how Joseph happily worked around the property for so long without a complaint. And then, apparently for no reason, somebody killed him.
These ladies do not take violence against anyone lightly.
“We loved Eric Joseph,” Peggy Angel said.
In the audience sat Bridget Barnette, mother of Tyson Barnette, a Rock Hill native killed in Washington, D.C., the week before Thanksgiving.
“When you hurt one of us, one of our brothers and sisters, you hurt us all,” Mayes told the gathering of people from all walks of life. Blacks and whites, cops and preachers, teachers and mothers. All united by one awful thing – mayhem.
In the front row sat Jeannie Williams, whose son Jeffrey died of carbon monoxide poisoning at a North Carolina motel in June. Jeannie Williams was seriously injured. Three months earlier, a Washington state couple died from carbon monoxide poisoning in the same room. The motel owner is charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of assault inflicting serious injury.
The garden honors recent victims of domestic violence, too: Cora Campbell, Johnny Lee Ellison, Sandra Grose, Sandra Thomas, Barbara Gregory and Mia Rodgers.
Mia, 9, and her grandmother, Barbara Gregory, were shot to death last month – York County’s most recent domestic violence killings.
In York County, in the past four years, there have been at least five domestic violence killings. Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett pointed out that the most recent statistics for the United States show that for the third time in a decade, South Carolina’s domestic violence death rate was the highest in the nation.
“Without the enforcement resources, education and support for the victims of domestic violence, our situation will not improve,” Brackett said. “Changing the mentality that, ‘She’s just going to go back to him, so there is no point in trying to stop this,’ is critical to dealing with this problem.
“Access to shelters and support networks such as Safe Passage are absolutely essential to providing victims with an alternative to their dependence on their abuser.”
Safe Passage, a nonprofit Rock Hill shelter for domestic violence victims, has been able to stay afloat with the financial support of Brackett’s office and other programs. Places such as the Woman’s Club have helped make Safe Passage work.
In 2006, Brackett dedicated a prosecutor specifically to handle domestic violence cases and a court for first-time offenders. Jenny Desch started and ran prosecutors’ criminal domestic violence court diversion program for years, and now Kristin Smith coordinates the court, which meets two or three times a month.
The special court brings together the treatment resources victims need, while taking a hard line on domestic violence criminal cases.
Prosecutors and police often face an uphill battle, Smith said, as a victim often doesn’t want her assaulter prosecuted because she relies on him financially. It is not uncommon for domestic violence offenders out on bond after arrest to re-offend.
In the face of all the pain brought on by acts of violence, the ladies of the Woman’s Club want the families of victims and surviving victims and to know that the dead and the injured are not forgotten. Their butterfly justice garden is open to all who want to look, to sit, to think about what anyone can do to stop the violence.
Woman’s Club member Daisy Miller, herself a victim of violence years ago when a bunch of goons robbed the bank where she worked at gunpoint, told the victims’ families: “My heart goes out to all of you.”
When Wednesday’s ceremony was over, these people – many of them strangers – hugged.
Then they went inside the historic Woman’s Club headquarters, where they found enough food to feed an army and two battalions of Marines.
These ladies not only give of themselves to those who are hurting, they are Southern Women – genteel and raised right. All who came to their garden were guests, and when the Woman’s Club of Rock Hill has guests, those guests eat.