Tour Stop: South Carolina!

Family group on Front Porch in front of white brick with Parker and Sara in the picture

We welcome another beautiful blog from Julie Smith Turner, our Free Mom Hugs South Carolina Chapter leader. She had a powerful visit with Sara and Parker on the Don’t Hide Your Pride Tour stop in Columbia.

We had Sara and Parker for less than 24 hours over Memorial Day weekend but I knew we wanted to offer a variety of events while they were here. First, I wanted to do something especially for the local LGBTQ community. So I reached out to our local LGBTQ community center to see if we could pull together a small event in a known safe space. The result was a Friday evening meet and greet with light refreshments at the Harriet Hancock LGBT Center. It was the first time the center had hosted an event since they moved to virtual services for COVID. It was so fun and emotional. We were joined by the center’s namesake, longtime local activist Harriet Hancock and also Mandy Carter, an LGBTQ and civil rights activist from North Carolina.

The LGBT center front of building with palm tree next to it and a pride, bisexual and pan flag flying in front yard.

Harriet Hancock LGBT Center

With the event ending early in the evening, we impulsively headed out to the city’s new Pride bar and caught the tail end of a rousing drag show. With the bar packed for the show, we gave out lots of hugs and stickers!  Sara and Parker had to hit the road for Atlanta by 1pm on Saturday, so we planned the second event for 10:30am Saturday morning. The concept was to feature several local speakers along with Sara and Parker to educate about the local LGBTQ community and to increase  awareness of Free Mom Hugs. The event was hosted in our city’s award-winning Richland Library in the main auditorium. 

Parker wearing a Free Mom Hugs shirt standing next to podium at Richland Library

Parker Cunningham speaking at Richland Library, Columbia, SC.

The public event featured Katharine Allen, Director of Research for Historic Columbia who talked about the LGBTQ Columbia History Initiative which launched in 2019. She shared an insightful presentation of photos, personal recollections and  excerpts from LGBTQ media drawn from their interactive project which documented the stories of the LGBTQ+ community through the creation and dissemination of oral histories, historic site interpretation, and archival collections. Next, Harriet spoke to the group of about 50 attendees about how and why the LGBTQ community became established in Columbia since the first public Pride march on the state capital in 1990. Mandy, who served as Harriet’s mentor in establishing the city’s first Pride march, also shared her experiences and hopes as an activist in the south. And the last part of the evening Parker and Sara both shared their stories with the group. 

Family group on Front Porch in front of white brick with Parker and Sara in the picture

Our amazing friends in Columbia, South Carolina

What was the best part of Sara (and Parker’s) visit?  Selfishly, the best part was being able to meet Sara and Parker. I have been involved with Free Mom Hugs for about three years, so I’ve only seen them and spoken to them virtually. After they  spoke Saturday morning, I noticed that Sara’s original handwritten Free Mom Hugs button was still on the podium, so I picked it up. In my hand I held the plastic button that drove this national groundswell. It was a physical reminder to me that with enthusiasm, love and persistence one person can truly do great things that matter. 

Close up of old, hand written Free Mom Hugs button with crack in the face of it

The button that sparked a movement!

I missed them the second they walked away. But that was tempered by what we had experienced together in Columbia. We had these amazing events where people came and we all laughed and cried. It was a few moments of pure joy in a rough stretch of history. I was proud that those who came had the opportunity to learn about people and groups in our community who had been working for LGBTQ South Carolinians over the years and that we were able to shine a spotlight on Historic Columbia’s powerful LGBTQ history project.

The tour mattered for so many reasons. We can’t always get people out to local Pride events so this was a wonderful way to introduce Sara, the LGBTQ community and our nonprofit to the general public. It happened during a tough time in the south as hateful legislation dominated and trampled LGBTQ rights and swayed public perception. But I was equally proud to show off my hometown to Sara and Parker. We have done — and will continue to do amazing work here — and Free Mom Hugs will be part of it. 

Sara and Parker with a group at the Richland Library
The work continues!

If you would like to join us, or support future tours and other Free Mom Hugs programs, please head to our website! We have resources, ways to connect to chapters, and options to support our work financially.