The Legend of Red Kelly

The legend of “Red” Kelly began on the streets of Olympia, among the textile workers in Columbia, SC.  As a teenager he was a cigar smoking, hard drinking fighter with a traveling boxing ring. He went from town to town with his friend, fighting all comers for cash.  ““Red” was bold and tough and the lessons of life were taught to him from inside the ring…until one night when he did something he normally would not have done.

Bruce Kelly, a longtime resident of Columbia and son of Charles “Red” Kelly, gave us the inside scoop. “Red” decided to go to a Methodist revival in the Whaley neighborhood of Columbia. It was there, listening to the words of Reverend R.C. Griffin, that he was saved and turned to preaching.

His life’s ministry started under a tree near present day Catawba St. (which at the time was Tobacco St.) He then was given stewardship of the Nazarene church in the Olympia community where the mill workers grinded out a living.  That influence grew and over the years he would become a leader in the denomination’s expansion across the south.

Sometimes “Red the fighter” and “Red the minister” were needed at the same moment.

Bruce recalled that his father would preach a couple of times a year in a church in Arthurtown during segregation.  Arthurtown is a historical black community in the southern part of Columbia, SC that can trace its history back to the plantations of old. The two churches would exchange preachers and choirs from time to time to foster love and community.

The story goes that before one such exchange; where “Red” was going to preach a revival in Arthurtown, a well-known, trouble making drunk named Tommy came up to the Kelly home in Olympia.  He was tall, “Raw-boned” and muscular.  Bruce recalled, “He would get on a drunk, suffer from delirium treatments and ask my dad to pray for him.  He came into the house shirtless and everyone considered him a dangerous man.” 

Bruce went on, “We children had to leave when Tommy came in. Dad would start praying for him, but then the man would get mad and start yelling at my dad, ‘You trying to make a preacher out of me!’ Dad had to cut him off and tell him that he couldn’t deal with him right then, he was going to a revival.”

Tommy, not to be outdone, told Reverend Kelly that he was going too and quickly ran home to change into some better clothes.  The Kelly’s picked him up in front of his house on the way to the church. 

Unfortunately for the revival meeting, Tommy was worse.  Tommy interrupted the service several times.  He made threats and intimidations to such a degree that even the most humble took offense. Something had to be done.  Reverend Kelly and five others had to wrestle and carry Tommy out of the church while he was grabbing the pews on the way out the door. 

Tommy was wedged in the backseat, a man on either side of him. Red revved up the car, speeding towards town. It promised to be a tense ride, but to everyone’s surprise, he hugged both men, proclaiming them “Alright!” The stressful night seemed to have come to an end just before he slapped their heads together.

The jailer met them outside as they pulled up to the jail. Tommy was obviously well-known to them all. As he was escorted into the lock-up, Red recounted the events of the evening to the authorities.

Bruce Kelly remarked, “I don’t think Tommy ever came back around Olympia after that.”

The fascinating saga of Charles “Red” Kelly took him from the streets of the Olympia Mills Textile village to the amateur boxing ring.  He fought men when only money was on the line, and fought later when souls were in the balance.  He boldly walked on both sides of the street in the segregated south and he pointed the way to a better life wherever he was.

And the stories continue to flow from his son, Bruce Kelly.  Sitting in the room of the Olympia-Granby Mill Village Museum, he rattled through a half dozen memories of his father.  A remarkable collection that anyone within earshot would be spellbound to hear.

Bruce summed up his father’s life in a way that challenges all of us, “He did as much as he could, for as many as he could, for as long as he could!” 

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