The South Carolina coastal city where many in Wilkes County and the area spend summer vacations is a better place because of Wilkes native Herbert Riley Jr., who died there July 10 at age 68.
Riley is remembered in Myrtle Beach as a community leader, gifted jazz and blues musician and mentor to many. He worked on behalf of Myrtle Beach’s black community in a way that promoted cohesion rather than division citywide, thus likely accomplishing more than otherwise would have been the case.
People wanting to better any community should know how Riley went about impacting Myrtle Beach.
He played a key role in preserving Charlie’s Place, an ex-night club where famous artists like Otis Redding and Little Richard performed during the decades of segregation. Riley helped turn the old club into a museum, performance venue and community center and through this and in other ways rejuvenated a predominately black section of Myrtle Beach.
His father, Herbert Riley Sr., was a Myrtle Beach native who worked at some of the finest hotels there and was active in the community.
Riley’s roots in the Grand Strand ran deep, but his mother, Ella Alexander Riley, was from the Denny Grove AME Zion Church section in Wilkesboro’s “upper end” off Cherry Street. Riley was raised in and by that community, thus influencing the man he became.
He attended first through eighth grades at all-black Lincoln Heights Elementary School here and was among the first 30 or so black students at Wilkes Central High School when integration occurred in the fall of 1965. Lincoln Heights High wasn’t closed until the end of the 1966-67 school year, allowing students two years to make the change.
Integration also began at Myrtle Beach High School in the fall of 1965, and black students faced considerably more racism at Myrtle Beach High than in the Wilkes high schools. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that blacks could legally go to any public beach, stay at any motel or eat at any restaurant.
After Riley graduated from Appalachian State University, Myrtle Beach became his fulltime home. His parents had already moved there. Although more racially volatile than Wilkes County, Myrtle Beach’s many live music venues helped him make a living doing what he loved. Like many of his Lincoln Heights classmates, Riley was instilled with a drive to be successful.
People close to Riley said his interest in the well-being of Myrtle Beach’s black community grew and this dovetailed with his love of the city’s jazz, blues and gospel musical heritage. He helped people realize the value of Myrtle Beach’s predominantly black Booker T. Washington community and believed in preserving history while moving forward.
Riley’s widow, Mary Cumbee Riley, and a close friend and former neighbor in Wilkesboro, Eric Gilreath, both described how Riley made a transformation from focusing on “I and me to us and we” when they spoke at a celebration of his life in Myrtle Beach on July 13.
In the process, he helped start the Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival, chaired the Horry County Planning Board (county in which Myrtle Beach is located), served on the Horry County Affordable and Workforce Housing Commission, helped found the Carolina African American History Foundation and more. He mentored countless young people.
Riley demonstrated the good that can be accomplished when people channel their love of place and concern for others into positive action. His example is especially important considering the divisive public rhetoric in our nation lately.
A proclamation signed by Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune stated it well by saying Riley “was a uniter, not a divider, whose musical approach to life helped each of us understand that a community that works together emits a joyful noise.”