Coastal Community Foundation honors the first graduating class of Rev. Pinckney Scholars, five years after the Emanuel AME Church tragedy

Five years ago, nine innocent black lives were taken by a self-avowed white supremacist during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church.  Many today in South Carolina will still be able to recall exactly where they were on the evening of June 17, 2015, when they heard the news when they realized this had happened in their own town, their own state. It was more tragic than anything many of us had ever collectively shared in a lifetime.

Today, as we see a groundswell of movements calling for racial equity and justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody, many are rightfully asking whether any progress has been made in these past five years. But at Coastal Community Foundation, we are consistently reminded that the work that we’ve done together with our partners and communities does advance equitable outcomes for people of color in our region.

One success story we’re proud to uplift today is of the Rev. Pinckney Scholarship Program launched at Coastal Community Foundation by anonymous donors in the wake of the Emanuel AME tragedy. This month, four years after the program began, the first class of Pinckney Scholars graduated from college — underscoring the program’s success.

The donors, recognizing South Carolina’s long history of systemic racism, were inspired to do something that would benefit communities of color in a lasting way. They chose to design this opportunity specifically for African American students of Beaufort, Charleston, and Jasper counties.

The program is named after Rev. Pinckney, one of the nine victims, a former state senator and senior pastor of the church who cared deeply about education. While the program wasn’t meant to right the wrongs committed that day at Mother Emanuel, it carved a new space for young black students to be supported and celebrated by their community as they pursued their passions, from art to social justice to medical science.

Eliana Pinckney, the daughter of the late Rev. Pinckney, said the outcomes for the first graduating class of Pinckney Scholars would have made her father proud.

“Hearing them talk and hearing them share their experiences about how passionate they are about leadership and community service and giving back, just reminds me of my father,” she said. “Something like this named after him would honestly put the biggest smile on his face.”

The Rev. Pinckney Scholarship Program was the first of its kind at CCF. Scholarships have been part of our programming for decades, but this was the first one to provide promising students with financial support as well as regular supplemental programming throughout college to enhance their academic and professional development. Alleviating the financial stress of attending college allowed the Scholars space to focus on their studies, get involved on campus, and pursue exciting opportunities, with the safety of knowing a team of people was back at Coastal Community Foundation supporting them.

“The last four years of working with these students has woven us together in a bond that will last beyond their time in this program,” said CCF Program Officer Caroline Rakar, who oversees the Rev. Pinckney Scholarship Program. “I have watched them grow, overcome adversity, and challenge the statistics. The pride I feel for each of them and their accomplishments are overwhelming.”

The graduating Pinckney Scholars, many of them first-generation college graduates, shared why this approach was so beneficial for them in interviews with Coastal Community Foundation. They explained that annual gatherings with fellow Pinckney Scholars at other schools helped them build a sense of community among like-minded students who shared many of the same experiences and values. It became a support system, where students could help each other navigate opportunities and challenges they faced throughout college.

Perhaps that’s one reason the retention rate for the program remains at about 97 percent, while the national college retention rate among African American students hovers at around 63 percent.

Beyond that, the graduating Scholars shared that they felt just being part of a program named after a man as Rev. Pinckney inspired them to emulate him in their everyday lives.

Carmen Hamilton, one of the graduating Pinckney Scholars, shared words of inspiration for the next class of scholars.

“I hope to see the next generations of Rev. Pinckney Scholars continue to grow as people, be progressive and exude black excellence even more than this first group of graduates,” she said.

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