HISTORY: Isaac Samuel Leevy

SC Encyclopedia  |  Isaac Samuel Leevy was born on May 3, 1876, in Antioch, Kershaw County. He graduated from Mather Academy in Camden and Hampton Institute in Virginia. After teaching school for a year in Lancaster, South Carolina, he moved to Columbia in 1907. Two years later, on June 23, 1910, he married Mary E. Kirkland, a fellow Kershaw County resident. The couple had four children.

Leevy

In Columbia, Leevy opened a tailoring shop in 1907, and within three years this business blossomed into the Leevy Department Store, which he ran until 1930. Over the course of his career, Leevy was a founder and president of Victory Savings Bank and directed various business enterprises, including commercial hog farming, furniture sales, an auto repair shop, a beauty salon, a real estate company, and a service station. As the first African American–owned gas station in Columbia, Leevy’s station was an important stop for black travelers who were barred from white facilities during the Jim Crow era. His most enduring business was Leevy’s Funeral Home.

As a strong proponent of minority education in a state that underfunded segregated black schools, Leevy pushed for the creation of Waverly Elementary School, Leevy Graded School (now Carver Elementary), and Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia. In higher education Leevy helped to found the graduate school at South Carolina State College and served as a trustee of Claflin College.

Leevy faced his toughest challenges in politics. As a black Republican in a state then dominated by white Democrats, he ran unsuccessfully for the General Assembly twice and four times for Congress (in 1916, 1918, 1946, and 1954). In the 1940s Leevy battled the all-white South Carolina Democratic primary. “We are asking for the opportunity to exercise political rights as guaranteed by the United States Constitution,” Leevy asserted in 1944. “We are asking for representation in the corporation to which we pay taxes. … [We] want a share in the government. All we ask is for a man’s chance.”

A staunch civil rights advocate, Leevy helped found the Columbia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served on the board of directors for the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), directed by Martin Luther King, Jr. After half a century of Republican activism, Leevy became a Democrat in 1964. Passage of the Voting Rights Act the next year ushered in a new era of biracial politics in South Carolina that enabled Leevy’s grandson, I. S. Leevy Johnson, to become one of the first African American state legislators since Reconstruction.

Leevy died on December 9, 1968, and was buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Columbia. Though he did not live to see his grandson enter the General Assembly in 1970, the election was a fitting testimonial to Leevy’s quest for minority political representation in South Carolina.

— Excerpted from an entry by Steve Estes.  This entry hasn’t been updated since 2006.  To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.) 

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One Comment

  1. Bonnie Leazer says:

    Thank you Andy for this wonderful story. You may find it interesting to learn that Mary E. Kirkland, Isaac’s wife was my great, great aunt. Her father’s story is just as interesting or more so. His name was Levi Kirkland. He was the son of Fannie Kirkland, a white female who was the daughter of a great landowner. When he died he had amassed an estate that included 3,000 acres of land, a cotton gin and several houses that he rented. His obituary appeared in The State newspaper, citing that he was probably the richest Black man in Kershaw County and possibly the state at the time of his death, which I believe was 1916. I had a copy of the obituary but can’t find it. I believe I gave it to my daughter when she was home this past Thanksgiving. You could verify it by searching The State’s archives.

    Bonnie Leazer
    Member of the Vestry, Grace Church Cathedral