Cynthia Graham Hurd was everywhere – always working, always helping, always looking out for others. And yet, because she moved through life with such understated grace and poise, her guiding and nurturing hand was not always evident. Only now, in celebration of her life, can we fully recognize the true extent of her reach and the enormity of her impact.
by Ron Menchaca ’98
illustration by Andrew Thompson
If Cynthia Graham Hurd had not been killed in the basement of Emanuel A.M.E. Church, had she lived to walk among us in our grief and sadness in the hours and days after the tragedy, many would have gone to her for answers.
We seek librarians when we have questions. We seek people of religious faith when our deepest beliefs are shaken. We seek the strong and the nurturing when we hurt. We seek someone like Hurd.
At a time of profound loss, in the desperate, hazy search for answers, for truth and healing, we would turn to Hurd and ask her why – why would someone commit such unimaginable acts of violence?
It was embedded in her truest nature to help, to comfort and to listen. But after the shootings, the one to whom we would turn might herself have struggled to find the right words. Instead she might have offered a hug, a prayer or a tear-filled gaze that would have said I too am hurting.
Had she sat behind the information desk in Addlestone Library on the Sunday following the shootings, exactly where she could be found most Sundays after church, the library patrons she helped would not have known it was her 55th birthday or that she was calling the celebration her double-nickel.
The fact that Hurd didn’t allow herself to rest on Sundays said a lot about her character and work ethic. Never mind that she had already put in more than a full week’s work as branch manager at one of Charleston County’s busiest libraries. Or that she maintained a busy schedule outside of work – volunteering on community boards and serving as an active member of her church.
If she could be of service to others, she found the time.
James Williams ’95, former associate dean of the College’s libraries, often stopped by the library on Sundays to talk with Hurd, his colleague and close friend. Both grew up in Charleston and had known each other since the mid-1980s. They also shared in common their religious faith and library careers.
In the months leading up to Hurd’s death, Williams had been wrestling with a decision about his plans after retirement, and he knew he could trust Hurd to help guide him toward the right answer.
Life of Books
A Charleston native, Hurd began her life of service to others in the happiest of places: an ice cream parlor. It was a fitting job for a purveyor of smiles like Hurd. Ice cream is the universal reward for a job well done, a sweet distraction for a fussy child, a shared moment among friends, a couple’s tradition. Even back then, Hurd was dispensing joy.
She grew up on Benson Street, a short lane tucked between upper King Street and Interstate 26. The brick bungalow where she grew up and remained as an adult was a reflection of her personality – warm and inviting. Visitors and passersby could see her love of gardening on display in the flower boxes that adorned the home’s white picket fence.
She was the daughter of Melvin and Henrietta Graham and one of six children. Emanuel A.M.E. Church was the family’s home away from home. Hurd’s mother sang in the church choir. All of the children attended the church, and Hurd sang in the youth choir.
Hurd’s brother, Malcolm Graham, recalled that his sister always seemed to have her nose buried in a book. “She was always a book nerd, always a very smart young lady, and she loved reading from a very young age,” he says.
She was a Charlestonian through and through. After attending James Simons Elementary School and the High School of Charleston, she moved to Atlanta to attend Clark College (now Clark- Atlanta University), where she earned a bachelor’s in mathematics in 1982.
At Clark, she was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Her passing was a blow to the tight-knit group of sorority sisters with whom she bonded during her undergraduate years. At a candlelight vigil organized by the university after the tragedy, classmates remembered Hurd for her sense of humor and boundless optimism.
By 1984 she had started her career with the Charleston County Public Library system, a remarkable tenure of service that would continue for the next 31 years. Along the way, she earned a master’s of library science from the University of South Carolina in 1989 before being named branch manager of the library’s John L. Dart Branch in 1990.
She would become a mainstay in that library and in the surrounding community over the next two decades.
Sherry Gadsden, former head of circulation for the College’s libraries, knew Hurd for more than 30 years. She says Hurd derived such happiness from sharing with others the life-changing power of books.
“Her respect and love for books was unwavering,” says Gadsden. “It was amazing to watch her face light up or that of a patron’s when something new and exciting was revealed or discovered through the joy of reading.”
With no children of her own, she worked to educate generations of Charleston’s youth, helping them grow intellectually – from story time to receiving their first library cards, from their first high school research papers through college and job applications. She knew she’d made a lasting impact when, years later, those she helped brought their own children back to the library.
“She was a librarian’s librarian,” says Malcolm Graham. “She enjoyed working with the kids, but she also realized her job extended beyond the walls of the library. She helped them discover themselves and learn skills that gave them the ability to live and grow, but she also was there to help people work through their problems. It went beyond just checking out books and helping people find jobs; she was there for people throughout the community who sought her advice on a variety of issues.”
Hurd first came to the College to work as a part-time librarian from 1991 to 1992. She returned to the College in 1999 and served continuously until her death, becoming the College’s longest-serving part-time librarian.
Through her many library-related roles and positions over the years, Hurd’s reach extended across the Lowcountry. Williams remembers when Hurd was working at the county’s Dorchester Road branch in North Charleston, where he would take his children to study and read. As his kids scoured the stacks, Williams would catch up with Hurd.
“We would chat about library stuff, community, culture, mutual friends,” Williams recalls. “A lot of our conversations involved religion and how the world needed to be a better place. But even when we discussed the bad things, she always made it come out with a positive spin.”
In 2011, Hurd was named manager of the St. Andrews Regional Library. Though she had to leave the Dart library that had become such an important part of her life, the move meant she could spread her positivity and bring her skills to another area of the community. In the wake of her passing, the county announced that the library in West Ashley would be named in her honor.
As Williams’ career progressed at the College and he assumed more administrative responsibilities, Hurd became one of the staff members reporting to him. He marveled at her ability to solve problems at work in a quiet, unassuming way.
“Any issue didn’t become an issue because she would work to nullify it,” he notes. “It was just her spirit. She always had a way of finding a resolution.”
A veteran librarian, Hurd brought her extensive network of community connections to bear on scholarly projects and community initiatives. She was well known and respected as a leader in her profession, but she didn’t seek glory or recognition. She was as comfortable spearheading a team of professionals as she was answering a child’s question about a book.
Harlan Greene ’74, former head of the College’s Special Collections, knew Hurd professionally for decades: “As a reference librarian, you want to find out what the person wants, but you don’t ask why. She personified that in her personality because she was so nonjudgmental. She would treat everyone the same.”
She encountered a little bit of everything at the library information desk: frazzled students pulling together bibliographies for papers due the next day, members of the public looking for a needle in a haystack, professors and scholars conducting research. She thrived on each challenge and made that person’s problem her problem.
“That’s where her expertise was so valuable because she was so used to serving everybody in the community,” Williams says. “There wasn’t a question she hadn’t heard or that would throw her.”
It was while working at the Dart Branch Library that Hurd met her future husband, Arthur Hurd. It was love at first sight, Arthur Hurd remembers their first encounter in 1993: “I was riding with my brother in the car, and I almost wrecked the car looking at Cynthia. I still remember what she had on. She was just the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”
Hurd told his brother to take the wheel as he hurried out of the car to catch up with her. “‘I’m going to marry her,’” he promised.
He later proposed, and they officially tied the knot in October 2001.
Arthur Hurd’s job as a merchant mariner meant long stretches away from his beloved bride, which made the times they spent together that much sweeter.
“She was a really smart lady, a very beautiful lady, a very colorful lady, a multitalented lady,” he says. “We used to cook together, bake pies and make macaroni together … just walk through Lowe’s and have ideas. I wasn’t one for gardening, but I would garden with her.”
Hurd was assigned to a ship in dry dock in Oman in the Middle East when the shootings occurred. It took him three days to get back to Charleston. All the while, he prayed there had been a mistake, that his Cynthia would be there waiting for him.
He now clings to the memories and little details that made their life together unique and special – the way she curled up in the back seat of the car to take naps as he drove them on long trips, the time he felt her heart beating in perfect rhythm with his own.
“I miss everything about her. Every single thing.” As busy as she was, Hurd made family a priority.
Her brother, Melvin Graham Jr., says he and his sister were planning a trip to Virginia the following week to see their other sister.
Years earlier, when brother Malcolm Graham ran for a seat in the North Carolina legislature, Hurd shuttled back and forth between Charlotte and Charleston to help him get elected.
Whenever he talked about serving his constituents, she reminded him that she too had constituents – the library users who counted on her day after day.
She stood in as the family matriarch to her siblings after her parents passed.
After the shooting, Malcolm Graham told CNN’s Anderson Cooper a story about how he was feeling sorry for himself after losing a bid for Congress. His big sister was there to deliver some tough love.
“Man, get over it,” Graham recalled his sister telling him. “Don’t look backwards, look forwards. When I only saw doom and gloom, she was able to paint a different type of picture.”
Patricia Williams Lessane first met Hurd soon after moving to Charleston to become executive director of the College’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
Hurd reassured her new friend that she would find her way in the city and be successful in her new role. Things just didn’t seem to rattle Hurd, says Williams Lessane, recalling the occasions when she brought her children along to project planning meetings.
“While I would be mortified by my children’s restlessness, Cynthia was unbothered by their behavior and always engaged them with a book or other activity. She was truly a librarian and teacher.”
Hurd also had a way of telling it to you straight. She was comfortable in her skin. She knew what she knew and seemed at peace with what she had accomplished in her life.
One of her sorority sisters, Casina Pressley-Washington, told an Atlanta reporter that Hurd would have gone to her death peacefully. She could imagine her friend saying, “If it’s my time, it’s my time, and all is well with my soul.”
When you live a life of service, humility and faith, life’s regrets are few.
Hurd’s life and legacy will live on in the thousands of lives she touched. Her name will forever be associated with education and literacy.
The College’s Board of Trustees designated one of the Colonial Scholarships, the university’s most prestigious academic scholarships for South Carolinians, as the Cynthia Graham Hurd Memorial Scholarship. And plans are being made to install a memorial to Hurd on Rivers Green, outside Addlestone Library. The plaque will pay tribute to Hurd’s life of service and quest for knowledge.
On a larger scale, Harlan Greene says the most lasting tribute to Hurd and to all of the victims would be for the community to continue seeking answers to the larger questions surrounding the tragedy: “That’s what she spent her life doing is helping people answer questions that were important to them. In the wake of what happened, we are still trying to find answers to these big questions.”
James Williams will remember Hurd as someone who was always more interested in hearing what others were feeling and thinking rather than talking about herself. He remembers clearly one of the last things he told her before she died. “She and I had talked on several occasions about the fact that I was interested in going into the ministry. I told her my biggest fear was standing up in front of a church congregation and having to speak.”
Hurd said she would help him work on that and that one day soon he’d be standing on a church pulpit. Ironically, Williams would stand in front of a church congregation for the very first time when he spoke at Hurd’s wake.
“A strong woman of God, she had service in her heart which is evidenced by all of the lives she touched,” Williams said in his speech. “Whether with her professionalism or her sense of humor, she had a way of bringing out the best in us.”
Williams made plans to enter the clergy following his retirement from the College. His good friend, in life and in death, had much to do with helping him find the answer.