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NAACP honors Twitty with Pioneer Award

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By Johnathan Ryan

HEATH SPRINGS – Staunch Democrat, voting rights and land cooperative leader.

These are words that describe Gonze L ee Twitty, a local farmer who was recently recognized by the Lancaster branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with the Pioneer Award. Educational leaders T.T. Barnes and Fred Thomas Jr. and voting rights leader Juanita Walker also received the award.

"We give this to people who paved the way for us in the community," said Charlene McGriff, second vice president of the local NAACP. She was a member of the committee that picked the winners.

"He's been out there for a long time helping those who can't help themselves," McGriff said.

McGriff praised Twitty for his work in the Democratic Party for many years and his willingness to represent the interests of black people in front of anyone, anywhere.

"He's been supportive and has spoken on behalf of the community," she said. "He's met with different folks and whenever we've needed him, he was always there."

Twitty, who was instrumental in voter registration in the mid-1960s, would like to see more youth get involved in politics today. At 89, Twitty said he can still show them how.

"I entice them to know what to do and how to go about it," said Twitty, the first black to serve on the S.C. Democratic Party executive committee.

"I can go into any precinct in South Carolina and see how the voting is turning out and if there are any problems," he said.

Blacks today still need to work with whites to advance economically and socially, he said.

"I recognized people," he said. "You have to recognize them for them to recognize you."

Blessed to a degree by being the son of a landowner, Twitty had more of an advantage as a young man seeking loans from local banks for his farm work than many other blacks.

"They would say, 'Well, John, we would like to help you, but you've got no track record,'" Twitty said, quoting what bankers would say to someone with little credit history.

But he wanted to help other black farmers and poor white people acquire land to profit from, so he used his organizational and social skills to help start the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund in 1967, of which he stills serves on the board of directors.

In 1969, he helped start the Southern Cooperative Development Fund.

The federation started with just a $600,000 federal grant and $75,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, Twitty said. Today, its 12,000 members own more than 1 million acres.

Through the co-op, black farmers would pool their crops and resources to create markets for certain crops, such as sweet potatoes.

"We realized we could make a lot more money by using one acre for sweet potatoes over 15 acres of cotton," Twitty said.

In 1991, Twitty was inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame.

He remains active with the organizations, and will again attend the Southern Development Cooperative Fund's annual meeting next month in Atlanta.

Twitty is proud of his accomplishments.

He's also proud of the physical strength he still has, even as he approaches 90. He will readily show off his ability to lift and throw heavy items and get around his farm quickly.

Contact reporter Johnathan Ryan at jryan@thelancasternews.com or (803) 416-8416