Earl Matthew Middleton
It was risky business to say the least. How could a black barber hope to succeed in selling insurance and real estate in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in the 1950’s and 1960’s’ Through a combination of determination, hard work and positive attitude, Earl Matthew Middleton persevered with his dream of economic progress to become the head of the largest real estate agency in Orangeburg. One of the reasons for Middleton’s success is his willingness to look beyond racial boundaries. Half of the customers of Middleton and Associates Realtors are white and so too are half of his employees. Middleton hired his first white real-estate agent in 1972. Ten years ago, the company became the first black-owned affiliate of Sears Roebuck and Company’s Coldwell Banker, this country’s biggest real estate brokerage. “I just like people,” Middleton explains. “Black or white, it doesn’t matter to me. It never did.” Born in Orangeburg, South Carolina in 1919, Middleton was the youngest of six children. His father was a carpenter, and his mother, an educator, was a member of South Carolina State College’s first graduation class in 1903. Middleton himself graduated from Claflin College with a degree in sociology and was class president for each of the four years he spent there. After graduation, Middleton went to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1942 to embark on a career as a pilot. Tuskegee offered the only facility in the United States where African-Americans could train as pilots for military service. Middleton joined the 99th Pusuit Squadron, becoming the first South Carolinian to train with this all-black unit. He completed 65 hours of pilot training but was not selected for the final group of “Tuskegee Airmen,” scheduled to be the first group of black pilots in the nation’s armed forces. Undeterred, he joined the US Army’s ground forces and served in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War. Returning to Orangeburg, he was determined to control his own destiny. He opened a barber’s shop and began selling real estate and insurance. An active civic and political leader, Middleton was a member of the Republican Party, traveling to San Francisco in 1952 for the party’s nominating convention as a member of an all-black delegation from South Carolina. After the state’s Democratic Party dropped its racial barriers and Democratic administrations of the 1960’s passed important civil rights legislation, he changed his affiliation. He was elected to the South Carolina General Assembly in 1974, as a Democrat, and served until 1984. As a member of the US Civil Rights Commission, he was closely involved with events in the aftermath of the infamous 1968 “Orangeburg Massacre,” in which three students were killed and 17 more were wounded by state patrolmen as they protested against the segregation policy of a local bowling alley. The tragedy strengthened his resolve to work to bridge the gap that existed between the races and to show that people of all races can live harmoniously together. Today, Middleton, a life-long Methodist, is still an active member of his community. He is involved in the daily affairs of his business, and with the help of his son and partner, Kenneth, the company continues to expand.