Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
Reverend Robert George Toatley Sr.
A Guiding Force Who Led by Example and Quiet Yet Firm Voice of Encouragement & Equality
The Rev. Robert George Toatley, Sr., was a native of Irmo, S.C. His father was a school principal, his mother a teacher. He attended Emmett Scott School and Clinton Junior College. Toatley attended Johnson C. Smith University, where he received his bachelor of arts and master of divinity degrees. Following his ordination in 1946, the Rev. Toatley served as a missionary pastor in several parishes across South Carolina. In 1969, he became pastor of Hermon Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill.
Toatley helped promote voter registration among Rock Hill’s African American community. In 1960, together with his friend and fellow minister, the Rev. Cecil Ivory, he was arrested for “trespassing” after they refused to leave Woolworth’s, while supporting a lunch counter demonstration.
Toatley helped organize marches and boycotts. He ministered the Friendship 9 protesters while they were serving a 30-day sentence in the York County prison. One of the students, W.T. “Dub” Massey, said that Toatley “was there during tough times and dealt with things in a positive way. No matter how difficult things were, he had something positive to say.”
Toatley fought to integrate Rock Hill’s schools, His son, Robert Toatley, Jr., was one of seven African-American students that integrated Rock Hill High School. Toatley followed the school bus to help ensure their safety.
"He was there during tough times and dealt with things in a positive way. No matter how difficult things were, he had something positive to say.”
He knew and was inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and traveled to the nation’s capital in 1963 to participate in the March on Washington, where he witnessed Dr. King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Years later, reflecting on Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violent protest, Toatley said, “You can’t go in there with fists fighting.”
In 1969 Toatley became the first person of color to run for Rock Hill City Council, advocating for better housing and education. While Toatley did not win, he paved the way for later generations of African-American elected officials.
Toatley was a peacemaker undeterred by threats of violence. Brother David Boone said, “No one was threatened more.”
He was instrumental in bringing national attention to the plight of Lenell Geter, a South Carolinian, who in 1982, was wrongly convicted of armed robbery in Texas. Alerted by his son to this injustice, Toatley advocated on Geter’s behalf. His speech to a local church group led to one member connecting CBS’ “60 Minutes,” whose episode on Geter was instrumental in his vindication and release from prison. That story won a Peabody Award, the highest recognition for TV journalism.
He served as president of the Rock Hill Christian Ministerial Association and as chairman of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Relations. He also was president of the Clinton College Alumni Association.
His legacy continues to this day, memorialized in the annual Robert Toatley College Scholarship, funded by his college fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma,
His passionate advocacy for justice, his legacy of peaceful protest, and support of equal rights and equal education make the Rev. Robert G. Toatley, Sr., an inspiration to all citizens.