Alice Hurley liked to be busy. She liked to organize — to help determine the way something would be built.
“I’m a person, I like to organize and start things, but once it comes into fruition, I prefer somebody else do the full-time job,” she said in a 2017 oral history interview for the South Carolina Department of Education. “But I do like getting things started when I see a need.”
Hurley co-founded Columbia’s Urban League and, later, the Poinsettia Cotillion to promote higher education for young Black women. She was a revered social worker and community organizer and remembered as someone who spoke only when she had something to say but who always made an impact.
“Be demure,” Alice’s daughter Kelly remembers her saying. It wasn’t a suggestion to be small, but a reminder that quiet can be powerful.
Alice Hurley died “quietly and unexpectedly” Nov. 26 while visiting family on Saint Helena Island. She was 87 years old. Her services were scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 4, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.
It was likely her childhood — losing her mother at 9 years old and then attending boarding school — that molded Hurley into a resilient and self-contained person, said her son, Brian Hurley.
“That imparted some resiliency to her, but also independence,” Brian Hurley said, a virtue she firmly imparted in all of her children, alongside a deep appreciation for education.
“African American women had to work and so education was considered our way out, as a way up the ladder. There was never a question about whether you were going to go to college. It was where you were going to go,” Alice Hurley once told a photographer.
She received an undergraduate degree from Boston University, and later earned her Master of Social Work from Atlanta University. It was then she reconnected with Anthony “Tony” Hurley.
Tony attended Palmer Memorial Institute, the same boarding school as Alice. She once told a reporter that the pair didn’t speak much then, and only got to know each other once they both landed at separate colleges in Atlanta.
They married and moved to Columbia in 1961.
The pair were seen as leaders in the community at large, but particularly for young Black residents. Tony operated a funeral home he inherited from his father, and Alice was a social worker, first at the Crafts Farrow State Hospital and then for Richland School District 1.
Kelly Hurley described her mother as “a trendsetter.” The Hurleys were often the first Black members of a given organization, and Alice’s children credit her with integrating both a summer camp and a local ballet studio.
Alice and Tony Hurley founded the Columbia chapter of the Urban League, the national civil rights advocacy organization that today has programs for everything from accessing higher education, to finding affordable housing.
When she arrived in Columbia, the civil rights movement was on its way, she said in the 2017 oral history interview, but it needed a mechanism for consensus building. That’s how she saw the Urban League, as grassroots mediators.
Columbia’s branch was established just three years after the Civil Rights Act became law, and only after Alice’s persistent reminders to would-be National Urban League president Whitney Young.
She had met Young first while she was still a student. Years later, she told him of the need for a chapter — South Carolina didn’t have one. She received no response. She didn’t let him forget about her request the next time she saw him, several years later at a lecture he was leading in town. A few months after their conversation, Young sent two Urban League field agents to the Hurleys’ front door.
“It got started in our living room, essentially,” Alice said in 2017.
There was concern the effort would meet resistance. It was the ‘60s in South Carolina and there was tension around the civil rights movement.
“During the ‘60s, there was a lot of suspicion on the part of people in the community, particularly people in the white community, about outside organizations because some felt that they would be troublemakers,” said J.T. McLawhorn, president of the Columbia Urban League.
But Alice’s even-keeled demeanor and coalition style approach drew the support of a diverse group of Columbia’s biggest names at the time.
Alice and Tony Hurley also started the Poinsettia Cotillion in 1980 — Kelly Hurley and 12 others were in the first class of debutantes.
It was meant to create a space for young Black women to be introduced to society in the same way their white peers had historically been. But for Alice, the Cotillion was more than just a black-tie event. It was a way to connect young women to opportunities that she felt had been afforded her.
“I think the Cotillion was just kind of an extension of wanting to give opportunities for young women to you know open doors for them, to have access to a broader group of people and to be supported by their friends and family and to have a public acknowledgment of that,” said Alison Summey, who now oversees the ball with her husband, Kenzil.
“I think they understood that you have to do something to help others and to open the doors for others,” Summey said.
Hurley was just as active toward that mission behind the scenes, often serving as a silent mentor for young people starting out in social work and community organizing.
“She gave my daughter her first job as a social worker,” recalled Martha Smith, who now sits on the Urban League board.
Alice helped Smith’s daughter get a job in a school that had never had a social worker before.
“She mentored her and I mean throughout all the years. My daughter has always referred to Alice Hurley as the person that really set her on the path of this whole issue of social work and social justice,” Smith said.
Her community-focus did not cloud her love of family, however. She and her husband, who passed away in 2015, raised three children — Kelly, Brian and Michelle, and had five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Alice was a loving grandma who spoiled her grandkids and stayed in touch with each of them, Kelly and Brian Hurley said.
She was a “Do-er.” Someone who took action when she saw a need and never asked for credit.