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Renovations to historic Booker T. Washington showcase civil rights history of the city, state

<p>The main entrance to the old Booker T. Washington High School stands on the University of South Carolina campus on Jan. 26, 2024. The school was the largest black high school in South Carolina before closing in 1974.</p>
The main entrance to the old Booker T. Washington High School stands on the University of Թϱ campus on Jan. 26, 2024. The school was the largest black high school in Թϱ before closing in 1974.

Walk down the middle of the Horseshoe, and look at the bricks.

Lined with names and graduation years, they tell the stories of people from years past. 

But they're more than just pathways to walk on.

Other ones tell a different story. More than 100 years old, those bricks are from Booker T. Washington High School.

The school, built in 1916, was one of Թϱ's largest public high schools for Black students. It consisted of a five-acre campus at the corner of Blossom Street that included a cafeteria, gymnasium and laboratories.  

Now the Booker T. Washington auditorium is being renovated to tell the stories of its former students. 

The university used to only exist between Blossom and Main Streets and did not have the sprawling campus that it does now. Across Blossom, there were primarily Black neighborhoods

It became a trend in the 1950s and '60s to conduct "urban renewal campaigns," where federal support was given to cities to revamp rundown communities. More than 900,000 homes across the country were destroyed through federal slum clearance projects, according to

Through these campaigns, USC expanded an otherwise enclosed campus, and certain Black neighborhoods were displaced to make room for the growth.

The additions of Capstone and Columbia Hall to campus in the 1960s encroached into historically white neighborhoods, prompting pushback from residents in the Five Points area who were negatively impacted, said Robin Waites, the director of Historic Columbia.

Ward One, a Black neighborhood bound by Gervais, Main and Huger streets, was located where Darla Moore School of Business and Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center now are. 

Ward One didn’t deliver the same sort of pushback that other neighborhoods had, Waites said. 

“They didn’t have the same sort of positions of power to stop it,” Waites said. 

Those residents sold their homes to the city, and renters moved away. 

This has contributed to what Bobby Donaldson, the executive director of The Center for Civil Rights History and Research, calls a "tension between the University of Թϱ and Black citizens of Columbia." 

For years, the only way a Black American could enter the campus was in a work capacity, whether that be part of landscaping, custodial or dining, Donaldson said. It wasn't until 1965 — 164 years after USC's founding — that the first Black student since reconstruction graduated from the University of Թϱ. 

Wheeler Hill was another predominantly Black area displaced in the '70s and '80s to make way for the university.

Located on Pickens Street, USC bought the land to make room for student housing.  When the plan never occurred, the land was sold to developers. By then, it was too expensive for its former residents to move back. 

Right now, the center lacks a physical location and instead exists as a series of collections spread between the South Caroliniana Library and Hollings Special Collections Library. The center also has a few administrative offices located in Thomas Cooper Library and Hollings Special Collections Library 

Moving into Booker T. Washington will provide a more permanent home for the center's displays and collections, Donaldson said. 

More classrooms, exhibits and historical displays will be added when The Center for Civil Rights History and Research, part of the African American studies program at USC, moves into the space.  

There are plans in the works for a new building next to the auditorium to provide a set location for the center beyond the displays in Booker T. Washington, but dates on the project are undetermined

BookerTWashington_TaylorKitchens _20.jpg

Chairs inside the Booker T. Washington Auditorium sit empty on Jan. 26, 2024. The auditorium serves as the current home of the USC Department of Theatre and Dance.

The center, first envisioned in 2014, started as a collaboration between former Dean of Libraries Tom McNally, former university President Harris Pastides and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.)

 Clyburn prompted the creation of the center, Donaldson said. 

In 2014, the university approached Clyburn about obtaining  papers that document his rise in congressional leadership and his legislative work.  Clyburn committed the papers with the caveat of displaying them. They were included with other  documents for civil rights history, and thus the Center for Civil Rights was born.

Beginning with Congressman Clyburn's papers, the center has been able to evolve and obtain more collections. These collections are used to advance research and scholarship among the faculty, provide resources for educational purposes and use collections for public engagement throughout Թϱ. 

Since its founding, the center has been focused on telling the civil rights stories of the university and state. It's important to make sure the telling of local history is equitable, Waites said. 

It’s not unusual for universities to have that sort of story nationally," Waites said. "As they grow, they kind of eat up the communities around them.” 

Donaldson said he hopes the reimagining of Booker T. Washington will help reconstruct relationships between Black Columbia residents and the university as well as contribute to forming new connections. 

The university was known as a place that was the epitome of segregation. Here was a gated, brick wall community. It was a campus in the heart of the city," Donaldson said. "There are people who are now in their 70s and 80s who have very clear memories of this campus being unwelcoming, and so the demolition and destruction of the leading Black high school did not make matters any better.”

Placing the center at Booker T. Washington helps those relationships by recognizing the past, Waites said. 

Much of what is known about Ward One and similar communities comes from research that Donaldson and his students have done. This has contributed to much of the signage and other markers that point out that history across campus. 

While this history has started to be discussed in recent years, there is still more work to be done, Donaldson said. A shift in the mindsets of universities across the country has prompted more documentation and recognition of civil rights history.

“Several years ago, there was a reluctance to even talk about enslavement, to talk about enslaved people on the campus. We’ve now tried to correct that,” Donaldson said. 

Much of that recognition came after a collaboration between the city and Historic Columbia in 2012. The university developed markers as well, with the center placing them around campus.

Now, the Center for Civil Rights History hopes to bring this awareness to the rest of the state through tourism and education, Donaldson said.

The center has received more than $6 million in funding from the National Parks Service due to its status on the National History Registry. The Booker T. Washington auditorium will now be renovated to include new classrooms, new exhibits and a meeting space for the general public. 

Booker T. Washington, this historic space, (will have) a whole new life, educating a new generation of people. That's the goal,” Donaldson said. “We'll bring in speakers, we'll have performances — all of which will help tell the story of the school and its people but also tell the story of civil rights in this state.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to provide clarification for the bricks on the Horseshoe and where the center has offices located. 


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