Sylvia Palmer is one of the proudest community members in Nicholtown. Born at the end of 1945, this vivacious woman has lived in Greenville for most of her life. As a long time resident, she has seen every transition and every step the city has taken, and she has grown with the best of it. Her life work has been centered around what will empower others around her.
“My generation was taught that you give back. Once you learn things, you share. You help those who may not know. Having pride for a neighborhood is vital, we want to see our neighborhood thrive and do well.”
Sylvia went to Knoxville for her college education and majored in science. Before court-ordered desegregation, she decided she wanted to come back to Greenville and use her degree to become a teacher. This decision led her to be the first African American teacher at Greenville Junior High School. She taught for thirty years, and when she retired, she went on to become the office manager for Greenville County Education Association for ten years. Since then, she has been involved with nonprofit work, and especially work within Nicholtown to protect long-time residents and improve housing.
“We needed to educate people who owned property in Nicholtown so they wouldn’t sell their property for cheaper than what it was worth to realtors and developers who were taking advantage of long-term residents.”
Sylvia connected with Sustaining Way through the Nicholtown Neighborhood Association and another nonprofit organization called Genesis Homes. Genesis Homes works to improve housing in underserved areas. With Sylvia’s knowledge of the Nicholtown neighborhood and its needs, her relationship with Sustaining Way felt natural.
“I call Annie’s House the house where the chickens are and people immediately know what I’m talking about.”
Since 2011, Sylvia has been Sustaining Way’s go-to historian, board member, and trusted networking guru for the Nicholtown neighborhood. As a local history resource, she has an innate ability to paint a picture of Nicholtown during the time of Jim Crow. She saw the destructive nature of segregation, is proud of the strides that have been made since then, and looks forward to a greater future.
“Segregation, integration, and gentrification were the three ‘shuns’ that have really affected our neighborhood.”
During the 1950s and 1960s, segregation had much to do with Nicholtown being a contained community. Nicholtown operated much like a village with scattered mom and pop businesses, dry cleaners, a barbershop, a coin laundry, restaurants, gardens, groceries, local doctors, and more. All basic needs were met by the community and remained this way until the 1990s.
“Sustaining Way is dealing with healthy growth of healthy foods. It speaks to before, back in the day, when people had their own gardens. It all comes full circle. But that was truly one of the survival moments of the past as grocery stores were not nearby.”
Despite Nicholtown being an impoverished area, Sylvia feels that the community still embodies much of the self-sufficient nature it once had years ago. Having a community garden as well as the garden at Annie’s House, people have the option to help grow and eat local fruits and vegetables. Sylvia has worked hard through various city council meetings and with Sustaining Way to help the community flourish, and flourish fairly.
“We partnered with so many people, we would go to city council meetings, and the mayor would say ‘Oh, I see the Nicholtown group is here!’ He started to know us on a first-name basis. We wanted this place to be something to be proud of.”
In fact, Sylvia’s name can be found engraved on one of the many named bricks next to the Nicholtown community garden. This just goes to show what a truly remarkable woman she is to the community as a whole. As her portraits were being taken, she spoke about all of the great names of Nicholtown and proceeded to point out those names. Among those were several business owners, artists, teachers, and her own beloved brother who was a mail carrier.
Sylvia’s engraved brick at the Nicholtown Community Center
“The thing about people is that they have preconceived notions about a lot of things until they go and see it for themselves and that’s what we pushed people to do with our community.”
One of Sylvia’s favorite ways to engage others at Sustaining Way is taking new hires with her on a two-hour tour through the community to discuss the history of Nicholtown and other interesting facts. Proud to be of assistance, she is passionate about the positive impact Sustaining Way is making on the youth and improving the community’s knowledge of sustainable practices.
“The day the solar panels were hooked up at Annie’s House was one of my favorite moments. This was the first house ever to have solar panels in the neighborhood. The beginning of the garden was momentous. Everyone was like, ‘How in the world can they do this on such a hillside?’”
Sustaining Way is forever thankful for Sylvia’s tenacious efforts to make the Nicholtown community feel like home. She leads by example with a voice that inspires our community to be proud and continue passing the torch of empowerment and knowledge.
“Knowing Sustaining Way’s purpose and mission as well as visiting are great ways to engage with Sustaining Way. Our social media is great too. Meals and Masks, our vegetable giveaway with food boxes has been so successful in engaging people, too. The word has gotten out quite well about us!”
-Story Captured by Kali Llano