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A voice for the voiceless

Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Berry Hawes leans toward quieter stories that speak for those who’ve been silenced


Story and Photography by Britney Tabor

Jennifer Berry Hawes hops out of her dark-colored SUV on a cool Thursday in early March at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery.
It’s quiet and just after 10 a.m.
Hawes, a petite woman with shoulder-length brunette hair, is dressed in a charcoal gray sweater, a black blouse, slacks and shoes and dark glasses.  But she hasn’t come to the cemetery for a funeral.
She walks the rows of graves with a yellow legal pad, a pen, a map of the cemetery and photographs to reference.
Occasionally, she stops and pauses. Hawes kneels to read the headstones of the dead. She occasionally snaps a photo of the monuments for reference. She also quickly jots notes.
She pauses to read a silver name plate the full length of a casket on one of the graves. Plastic white flowers are at the base of the slab.  Etched on it are birds flying and the inscription, “Going home.”
“Usually, I tend to lean toward the quieter stories that no one else is following,” Hawes says.
Flower arrangements, white crosses and wreaths are neatly placed at graves across the cemetery. Most of the people buried died within the last 10 to 15 years.  
The cemetery is in an area called the Neck, an upper part of the South Carolina peninsula that is a border between Charleston and North Charleston. The Neck, surrounded by nearby communities, is historically an industrial area.
Hawes has come to search for the graves of four people.
Cynthia Hurd, a 54-year-old library manger.  
Susie Jackson, an 87-year-old mother and grandmother.
Ethel Payne, a 70-year-old church custodian.
And, Tywanza Sanders, a 26-year-old recent college graduate.
It’s been nearly nine months since their deaths.
On a humid, 90-degree summer evening, June 17, 2015, they were among nine people gunned down by Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old stranger they welcomed into their Wednesday night bible study. Roof, a self-described white supremacist, opened fire on the predominantly black congregants as the study was ending.
Among the others fatally shot were DePayne Middleton Doctor, a 49-year-old minister; Clementa Pinckney, the pastor at the Emanuel AME church and a South Carolina state senator; Daniel L. Simmons, a 74-year-old minister; Sharonda Singleton, a 45-year-old pastor and coach, and Myra Thompson, 59, who restored Emanuel’s church properties.  Five others survived the attack.
After last year’s tragedy, mourners, onlookers and journalists from around the nation and the world would arrive in Charleston to remember the deceased who were gunned down in an apparent hate crime.
But now, the throngs of mourners are long gone.  So are the news trucks that clogged up downtown Charleston streets for coverage of the tragedy and its immediate aftermath. Here alone in this solemn and quiet cemetery stands Hawes, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner and a projects writer for Charleston’s daily paper, The Post and Courier.
The ground at the Emanuel AME Cemetery is soggy. Just as it is at the many other cemeteries connected to other church denominations and ethnicities that are nearby. There’s a cemetery for Jews. Another for Greeks. There is a cemetery for the remains of Baptists, Methodists and many others.  
Across the street from the new portion of Emanuel AME Cemetery that Hawes is standing in is the historic Magnolia Cemetery, a memorial park that opened in the mid 1800s on the grounds of a former rice plantation. A brick wall borders the property. Hawes says her research notes the wall was built “to keep people out they didn’t want in.”
“It so interesting how it’s all segregated,” she says.
From across the street at the Emanuel AME Cemetery, Hawes wondered about those buried directly across the street on the other side of that brick wall.  It was worth knowing, worth finding out.
Hawes begins to walks up Hegenin Avenue and enters Magnolia Cemetery through its front gates. Live oaks with Spanish moss and Palmetto trees stand throughout the winding roads of the cemetery. Besides Hawes, there are only a few others here this morning.
She walks until she reaches the approximate spot directly across from the Emanuel AME Cemetery. Buried in that exact spot are the remains of families known to have owned plantations at a time when blacks were enslaved in the United States and a soldier who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Now, standing in Magnolia Cemetery on the other side of the wall, Hawes thinks of the four people back at the Emanuel AME Cemetery. They are the descendants of slaves.  
Charleston, according to The Post and Courier, was once considered the nation’s slave capital. It was the place slaves were sold on auction blocks and separated from their homelands and sometimes their families, forever.  
“Ironic,” Hawes says.
No one ever expected these lives of Hurd, Jackson, Payne, Sanders and five others would end like this.
For Hawes, it wouldn’t be the first time she wrote about people whose lives were taken abruptly.

MAKING CHARLESTON HOME
Hawes vacationed in Charleston and became hooked.
She was fascinated with the city’s history and all the great stories to be told there. She came as a visitor, but Charleston soon became her home.
In 1998, she joined The Post and Courier as a health reporter. Over the years, she’s covered multiple beats including education, features and religion.  She joined the projects team in January 2015.
“Charleston’s such an interesting place, and the paper has been supportive of me,” Hawes says. “It’s hard to imagine where it would be better.”
It’s not difficult for anyone visiting the newsroom to understand what she means.
Throughout the day, writers are brainstorming and bouncing ideas off each other in between preparing stories for the daily paper and more long-form pieces.  Reporters have their own area of expertise to draw from.
The collaborative approach was key in The Post and Courier’s planning for an investigative series on domestic violence murders in South Carolina that began in late 2013.
For nearly two decades, South Carolina has ranked among the top 10 states in which women are murdered by men, according to the Violence Policy Center, a national education organization with a focus on stopping death and injury by guns. In that time, South Carolina has received multiple No. 1 and 2 rankings.  
Hawes, projects writer Doug Pardue, projects editor Glenn Smith and former Post and Courier reporter Natalie Caula Hauff spent eight months investigating what caused South Carolina to repeatedly make the Violence Policy Center list. What was it about the culture that repeatedly kept the state on the list? They examined legal, political and economic reasons.
Smith had experience covering crime. Hauff drew from a background covering crime and courts.  Pardue’s expertise was in government and legislation, and Hawes had contacts in the faith and social services communities.
The four reporters told the stories of 300 South Carolina women over the last decade that were fatally shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned and burned at the hands of husbands and boyfriends, men who were supposed to love and protect them from harm. The series shined a spotlight on the limited resources lawmakers put into prevention programs and their inability to pass legislation that placed stricter penalties on abusers.   
The team talked to victims, their loved ones, domestic violence advocates, law enforcement officials, counselors, prosecutors and judges. They sat in court proceedings, obtained court records and coroner’s reports for women killed in domestic violence incidents. The team built its own database with information on the number of domestic violence statistics in the state, where the hot spots were for homicide, response times, the time of day the murders occurred and the type of weapon used.
Throughout the course of their reporting, the writers said they encountered multiple cases in which the battered women sought the help of their church rather than going to police. Ministers viewed the incidents as marital issues and not crimes.
Pardue recalls he and Hawes interviewing a domestic violence advocate and asking her what was it that makes South Carolina the No. 1 ranked state for women being murdered by men.
“She named off a series of things, and then she said ‘Oh, and then there’s that religious thing,” Pardue said.
“What?” Pardue and Hawes asked.
“Till death do us part,” Pardue said the woman responded. “That became the title of the story.”
Hawes said she always thought journalists had to be aggressive and louder. However, she’s taken a different approach that’s worked for her, quieter and persistent.
“I think you have to find your niche,” she says. “Find what’s best for you.”
It’s something her colleagues took notice of when forming the “Till Death Do Us Part” team.
“She’s got a very good way with people, making them feel comfortable talking to her,” Smith says. “She’s just got that way about her.”
It was important to have people on the team with experience interviewing sensitive situations, Hawes says.
This type of series was the reason Hawes and her colleagues got into the news business — to produce powerful public service that effected change. They gave women who had suffered in silence far too long a voice.
“It’s as if they were waiting for someone to care enough to ask,” Hawes says. “I would have thought it would have been a lot more sensitive in the sense of talking about things that were very painful.
“I think they really wanted people to know. I think they really wanted there to be awareness. They wanted to feel like they were empowered in ways they hadn’t before.”

 WINNING THE PULITZER
“Till Death Do Us Part,” a seven-part series, was published in August 2014 in five editions of The Post and Courier.
April 20, 2015, the day the Pulitzer was announced, started like any other normal day for Hawes.  It soon became surreal.
Sitting on the beach at Isle of Palms reporting on North Charleston High School seniors for a series she was doing on school choice, Hawes begins to check her email.  
“Good luck to The Post and Courier,” a message from a former colleague read.
Hawes figured out that the Pulitzer Prize winners were going to be announced, so she dusted sand from her clothes and raced back to the newsroom 20 to 30 minutes away.
Hawes arrived that afternoon to a crowded newsroom. The publisher was there. So was The Post and Courier board chairman, the owner and colleagues’ spouses. Hauff, who had recently left the paper for a public relations job, was there.
Everyone seemed to think “Till Death Do Us Part” had a good chance of winning the public service gold medallion.
Hawes says she thought, “This is really going to be embarrassing … or it’s going to be amazing.”
Everyone gathered around televisions to an online live feed of the announcement.
“You won,” a co-worker reading the news online yelled across the room.
Many thought he was just joking.
Moments later, it was confirmed.
“Without further ado, here are the winners of the 2015 Pulitzer Prizes,” Mike Pride, administrator of the prizes said from a podium at Columbia University. “The gold medal for public service goes to The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina.”
In an instant, the suspense was over.
Then, the room erupted.
“It was too unbelievable a moment,” Smith said. “I was just floored.
“It’s very, very sobering at the same time. On one hand, it’s professionally the high point of your career, and on the other hand, you’ve got to be mindful of all the death that led up to that.”
It had been 90 years since the publication’s last Pulitzer Prize win. In 1925, the publication then known as Charleston News and Courier, won the editorial writing prize for an opinion piece titled, “Plight of the South.”
“You always just think of those prizes, and you think ‘Oh, The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal,” Hawes says. “You don’t think necessarily of The Post and Courier.
More than a year later, reporters continue to write follow-up stories to the series.
The “Till Death Do Us Part” series won multiple awards. Following the Pulitzer announcement, more people took notice of the projects team, and they began receiving invitations to speak and attend multiple events.
“There’s always that little thing in the back of your mind: ‘Do I really deserve to be here?” Hawes says. “But, you know in a way, I hope I don’t ever lose that because I think that’s important to always feel like you have to be ambitious toward what you’re working on and not just sit back and rest on your laurels.”
The day after the Pulitzer Prize announcement, The Post and Courier masthead was modified. It now has an image of the Pulitzer medallion, and with pride acknowledges “Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.”
The front doors at the paper’s office on Columbus Street in downtown Charleston have a similar decal.
On the day The Post and Courier projects team was presented with the public service medallion in May 2015 at Columbia University, the South Carolina Senate passed a domestic violence reform bill.  
All the work they did wasn’t in vain.

TURNING THE PAGE
The Pulitzer Prize was just the fuel Hawes needed for what would follow.
A little over two weeks after receiving the medallion, the mass shooting at Emanuel AME church rocked Charleston and the nation.
Hawes and Pardue were among the local reporters writing stories on Pinckney, the church pastor and state senator.
Following the shooting, Hawes wrote multiple follow-up stories on the congregation, lawsuits filed against the church, new leadership, gun control and donations made to the church.
Toward year’s end in 2015, an agent approached Hawes and others at The Post and Courier about writing a book about what happened that June night in the basement of Emanuel AME Church.
The story was one The Post and Courier writers were best fit to tell, Hawes says. In January, she and Smith began work on the book.
It’s what brought her to Emanuel AME Cemetery on this cool, damp Thursday morning in March.  With images in hand of the burials last June as a guide, Hawes searched for their plots.
Shortly after the shooting, victims’ family members offered forgiveness to the shooter.
The book is about the city accepting unity from across the world and everything being fine, Hawes said. But, that’s not the real story, she says. Families continue to struggle with grief and forgiveness. They’ve struggled with church leadership and legal issues. It’s a complex human story that goes beyond survivors forgiving the shooter and moving on, she says.
The book, published by St. Martin’s Press, is tentatively scheduled for release in 2017. Book proceeds are expected to go toward a minority journalism internship program, according to The Post and Courier.
 

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Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Berry Hawes leans toward quieter stories that speak for those who’ve been silenced
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