BEAUFORT, S.C. (Nov. 30, 2020) – In a few days, Billy Keyserling will relinquish his title of mayor – one he has held for 12 years -- and return to civilian life. But he won’t be retiring to a quiet life.
Far from it. Keyserling will devote himself to making Beaufort the epicenter of Reconstruction history through the continued expansion of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park, as well as nurturing his nonprofit: The Second Founding of America: Reconstruction Beaufort. This nonprofit, which he founded in 2018, seeks to promote Reconstruction education throughout the country and be an official advocate for the park.
Through all of this, Keyserling’s aim is “sharing common ground” as he seeks to “create conversations” among those of us who don’t talk to each other or understand the experiences of others.
Those who know the mayor’s history will not be surprised by this. He speaks of his “moral compass” – shaped by his grandfather and parents whose remarkable stories planted in him a desire for political action and public service, as well as his personal experiences. “That compass continues to guide me in life and has made me care deeply about how a better understanding of the Reconstruction era can help undo the shackles of an unknown past,” Keyserling writes in his new book “Sharing Common Ground: Promises Unfulfilled but Not Forgotten.”
Keyserling was named after his grandfather, a Jewish anti-czarist activist in Lithuania (at the time, part of Russia) who escaped into western Europe “tied to the undercarriage of a horse-drawn vegetable wagon,” Keyserling recounts. His grandfather arrived in New York at the age of 18, but soon headed to South Carolina, determined to be a farmer. He eventually came to Beaufort in 1888, and began work at McDonald, Wilkins & Co., a large cotton gin operation with cotton processing, shipping and marketing capacity for small farmers, as well as general stores throughout the area. “Within 10 years, he was a partner,” Keyserling said. “He brought his four brothers and mother over from Lithuania.”
Keyserling’s father, Herbert, went to the College of Charleston and then the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, becoming a doctor before serving in the Navy during World War II. He landed with the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal. “Dr. K.,” as he became known, returned to Beaufort, and began his practice. “He performed general surgery, made daily rounds at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, held office hours, and made house calls, and he delivered 150 babies a year,” Keyserling said in an interview. “I went with him on house calls. I saw so much and learned so much about the people growing up and living in our community.”
“Primarily, he cared for the rural poor among us, people who would, without his help, never have received medical attention,” Keyserling recounts in his book.
Keyserling’s mother, Harriet, “was a liberal New York Jew. She never thought she would live here. She thought they’d live in New York,” he said.
But his family did stay in Beaufort, and Harriet became an advocate for the arts, organizing concert series and cultural activities in Beaufort. She became active in the League of Women Voters, and, as the LOWV observer, was not impressed by what she saw during Beaufort County Council meetings. She decided to run for council – and was elected on her first try in 1974. Keyserling, by that time an experienced campaign operative, gave her a plan and tips from afar.
After two years, she decided she could make more of an impact in the South Carolina Legislature. She was elected in 1976 and served 16 years. “She had quite a legacy,” her son said. “Fighting against nuclear waste dumping, for energy conservation, for funding education, for promoting the arts. She was committed to reforming the House rules to end all-night filibusters.” She could not get the House to reform that practice through the legislative process, but she took copious notes during booze-filled nights, and shared those notes with newspapers around the state. That eventually embarrassed the Legislature into abandoning the filibuster.
Leaving Beaufort, and then coming back
The mayor says his busy parents were not always there for him, emotionally. He had severe dyslexia and had a very difficult time reading, and was always overweight. The family housekeeper, Maybelle Gardner Mack, who lived on Warsaw Island, helped fill the void he sometimes felt. “She mentored me about the human condition and about what is and is not important in life,” he says in his book. Through her, and his frequent house calls with his dad to patients’ homes, he had his first introduction to Gullah culture.
In tenth grade, Billy moved from Beaufort High School to a boarding school in Massachusetts, where the small classes helped him with his dyslexia, and gave him more confidence. He graduated from Brandeis University and began a behind-the-scenes career in politics, managing campaigns, and working intermittently for Sen. Fritz Hollings, the longtime Democratic senator from South Carolina. He also ran the National Conference of Soviet Jewry, and traveled to the Soviet Union where he met Jewish activists seeking to emigrate from the former USSR.
Eventually, Keyserling decided it was time to come home to start a small business. In 1992, he ran for his mother’s seat in the Legislature and won. After redistricting redrew his district, he ran in 1994 as a petition candidate – neither a Democrat nor a Republican – and won again.
“You get to a point in leadership where you have to find your own voice, but you’re also part of a team,” he said. For him, that meant focusing on his hometown city, first as a member of City Council and then, beginning in 2008, as mayor, where seeking common ground with members of council and the public has been one of his primary motivations.
He’s proud of the strides the City of Beaufort has made during these years – major infrastructure improvements including a reconfigured Boundary Street, the day dock, and the current Mossy Oaks Stormwater Project, but most proud that he achieves consensus 99% of the time in votes among Council members, and that he always encourages discussion.
“I want to be remembered for the culture inside and outside of Council,” Keyserling said. “It’s always been civil. I always listened and gave time to everyone. I am most proud of my ability to be part of a team and shape its direction. I’d like to believe that this culture of civility and consensus building has pervaded the City.”
Related: How the Reconstruction Era Park came to Beaufort