By Amanda Becker
BEAUFORT, S.C. (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke kicked off a campaign swing through South Carolina on Friday by pledging support for reparations for descendants of slaves and addressing climate change at a town hall with members of the Gullah Geechee Nation.
The Gullah Geechee are African-American descendants of slaves living in coastal, island and low-lying inland areas of South Carolina and Georgia who speak an English-Creole language. The Tabernacle Baptist Church where the town hall was held is in an area vulnerable to hurricanes, flooding and other weather events exacerbated by climate change.
O'Rourke, who had previously said he backed studying reparations for descendants of slaves, was asked outright if he would support them.
"The answer is yes. The path there, though, has to come through telling, learning and sharing this American story with everyone. Then I think you'll find what reparations look like in order to make that repair," he answered.
O'Rourke is one of two dozen Democrats vying for the party's 2020 presidential nomination and he is campaigning in South Carolina ahead of a Saturday forum hosted by the Black Economic Alliance that will also be attended by competitors Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren.
South Carolina will be the fourth state to hold a nominating contest next year and it will be the first with a sizeable number of black voters, who make up about 60 percent of the state's Democratic electorate. The candidates are seeking the support of the black voters after turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years, contributing to Democrat Hillary Clinton's loss to Republican President Donald Trump.
Marquetta Goodwine, known as Queen Quet, the elected chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation, said while she met former President Barack Obama in Washington, no presidential candidate had reached out to the head of the Gullah Geechee Nation to visit in person until this year. Warren was the first.
"I think it's excellent that finally they're recognizing that we do exist on this coastline, and that if you are going to talk about so-called minority issues in America, you have to begin with the minority that built America, which are the Gullah Geechee," Goodwine told Reuters.
"I hope this is really just going to, literally, going to open a floodgate of all of them paying attention to the fact that we exist and that our votes do matter," she added.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Leslie Adler)