'Knowledge of yourself is the key to success'

DAMIAN DOMINGUEZ - INDEX-JOURNAL Donald Burton, a vocational rehabilitation counselor and founding member of the after-school tutoring group Dream Builders dedicates himself to teaching black youth to love their history and themselves.

When Donald Burton was a child, he couldn't walk in through the front door at many restaurants.

Now 61 years old, a then-teenage Burton attended Brewer High School -- separate from the white children -- for three years. He still stays in touch with a homeroom teacher he had at Brewer, Margaret Wilson. She saw in him an eagerness to learn, to read and to absorb as many lessons as he could from his environment.

"He has his own ideas, and sometimes they're a little different," Wilson, 77, said. "But he stands by his own ideas."

Things changed for him when, for his last three years of high school, he attended the newly integrated Greenwood High School. Not all the changes were for the better, and some of them are still felt today, he said. The teachers at Brewer, like Wilson, were passionate, dedicated role models, he said. They would often visit students who was out of school, to check on them and assure they were doing OK. After integration, racial tensions ran high, and changed many teachers' and students' attitudes, he said.

"The way we integrated was the issue," he said. "We had to leave so much of our cultural stuff behind."

He finished his last years of high school, and while working as a cook -- a hobby and passion of his -- he got his associate degree in public service from Piedmont Technical College. He went on to get a bachelor's in sociology at Lander University and a master's in counseling and guidance services at Clemson -- which he has put to use for more than 30 years as a vocational counselor.

When his TERI expires next November, he'll be trading one passion for another by focusing on helping black girls and boys through tutoring, teaching life skills and educating them on black culture and history.

Dream Builders is a charity Butler started with a group of others in 2003 to provide afterschool education and activities for black children in Greenwood.

"The final objective is to teach them that they have the power to run the world," he said. "Knowledge of yourself is the key to success."

Amid teaching children African and African-American history -- which he says have been distorted or omitted from many history textbooks -- he has also taken to activism. While learning about their history can teach black youth to love themselves and each other and prevent black-on-black violence, he said the key to addressing race issues in any community is communication and education.

"What America has to face, and what Greenwood has to face, is what they don't want to face," he said, "and that's the issue of race and racism."

Last week, Burton got the ball rolling locally by hosting a meeting between law enforcement representatives, Mayor Welborn Adams and a group of local black activists. He sought to open a dialog between members of Greenwood's black communities and the people who serve and protect Greenwood, and to act as a liaison between the two.

"Some people have said, 'Well, you're taking sides with the police,'" he said. "No, we're taking the side of what's right. We have to start somewhere."

One of his closest confidants and mentors, he said, is his old homeroom teacher from Brewer High School, Wilson. He said he frequently turns to her for advice, and more often than not takes any advice she gives. Wilson said Brewer's work with the hundreds of children that have been through Dream Builders was inspiring -- but she knows he's got more to do.

"He was always deeply involved in the community," she said. "I see a lot of potential still in Donald. Even at the age he is, I can see him going into politics."

After his TERI expires, Burton said he wants to organize a conference in Greenwood inviting local groups, organizations, companies and public officials to come together to discuss issues of race and racism. An open dialog is key to addressing the problems that can create tension in the community, he said.

"Some people wonder why I'm not seen as a troublemaker, or an agitator," he said. "If I'm doing the right thing, I'm not going to fear any man who tries to stop me."

Contact Damian Dominguez at 864-634-7548 or follow on Twitter @IJDDOMINGUEZ.

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