For African-Americans of a certain age, the trip down the aisles of George Elmore’s 5-and-10 cent store for penny candy and chilled Coca-Colas in a circulating water bath is banked in memory.
Even more compelling is the story behind the memory: How Elmore, a prosperous African-American businessman, challenged the state’s all-white primaries in 1946 and then paid a dear price for his actions, losing his Waverly store to an economic squeeze engineered by a furious white establishment.
Now the 1940s-era, Gervais Street store is a pile of rubble, demolished by the church next door, and a group of stunned city leaders is moving quickly to open a frank discussion about the city’s civil rights history and the evocative role buildings play in preserving those memories.
“The real tragedy is, people can say they didn’t realize that building had value,” said Beryl Dakers, a member of the Historic Columbia Foundation board and a longtime journalist with ETV.
Elmore’s life story, Dakers said, is one that every South Carolinian should know.
Last week, before the dust had settled, Historic Columbia’s Robin Waites pulled together a group of like-minded people to talk about how to keep this from happening again.
They reviewed a list of buildings where people important to local history worked or lived – buildings the group would like to see protected as landmarks.
They began planning a forum on preservation as part of Jubilee, Columbia’s annual African-American history festival set for later this month.
They also discussed city policies that may need to change to keep other landmarks from unexpected loss.
Dakers and Waites said one of the challenges is helping people understand that preservation isn’t just about saving gorgeous buildings.
Civil rights-era buildings are particularly vulnerable because they’re in the 70- or 80-year-old range, an age that many people consider dated or rundown – not historic.
“We have an established list but need to continue to add more buildings on a regular basis,” Waites said. “This is an opportunity to bring people together to decide what’s important and to move forward on some designations.”
Attorney Steve Morrison, who has also been part of the discussion, said city leadership “across the board” needs to become educated on landmarks and the need to preserve them.
“It’s like standing at Monticello or Mount Vernon,” Morrison said. “You think: ‘I know George Washington just a little bit.’ And now we can only know George Elmore through his stories, and not his place. That’s why it’s important to save special places.” Elmore’s Tree Street home still stands and is now on the foundation’s list of structures that should be preserved.
For individual historic homes and buildings without city protections, it usually takes little more than a demolition permit from the city to tear it down.
But giving landmark status to such significant structures would mean property owners would need to get permission from the Design/Development Review Commission to tear down or otherwise change the exterior of the property.
The mayor, historians and civic leaders regret they didn’t do more to persuade First Nazareth Baptist Church and its pastor, the Rev. Blakely Scott, to hold off on the demolition of the old Waverly store and perhaps incorporate the building, or its facade, in the expansion of the church, which is one of Columbia’s largest African-American congregations.
The building, they suggest, could have served as an entry point to Elmore’s story as a civil rights pioneer who suffered personal and economic misfortune because of his willingness to take a courageous stand. Now, only a historic marker, erected a week before the hasty demolition, defines the site.
“Markers are fine but the building is the crystallized history for everyone to see, touch and feel. That makes the history more rich, when the buildings are still there,” said Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation.
“The thing that makes Elmore’s store more interesting is that it wasn’t a piece of irreplaceable architecture. It wasn’t about the architecture. It was about the place. It is about the soul of the human beings that interacted with that place and what they did it with it. That is so much more powerful.”
The razing took everyone by surprise – “unthinkable,” Dakers, with the Historic Columbia Foundation wrote in an email to civic leaders, including Mayor Steve Benjamin. Benjamin had contacted the pastor and asked him to hold off with the demolition until he returned from an overseas trip, a plea Waites hoped the church would heed.
But, in reality, no one gave much notice to the faded 1935 brick building, which last housed a bail bond company, a hair dresser and a few other businesses – or to First Nazareth’s plan to expand its church facilities onto the block adjacent to the church. The church purchased the property in 2010 for $122,000 and is going before the city planning commission on Monday with redevelopment plans.
The Historic Columbia Foundation did not have 2313-17 Gervais St. on its list of landmark-eligible properties, although it had worked with First Nazareth to install the historic marker as part of the African-American church’s 135th anniversary celebration. That ceremony, held on July 21 just days before the demolition, marked the first time Historic Columbia’s Waites saw the demolition notices posted on the building.
She and others are now kicking themselves for engaging in 11th-hour negotiations with the congregation to preserve the structure, rather than perhaps earlier when the property was purchased in 2010.
But in the midst of recriminations are larger questions about what should be preserved and what can be let go.
Morrison said preservationists battle an attitude in Columbia that it’s a sign of progress when an old building is torn down.
Cultural historian Vennie Deas Moore agreed. She said people seem to feel their surroundings are not significant, that their older communities would be better if they were more like new neighborhoods.
Moore said the mayor’s office and others in city government “need to get on the ball” as advocates for preservation.
City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine agreed local government has a role to play, but not one of a “hammer, stopping things.”
Instead, “We need to bring more attention to why historic preservation is important, and why you do it,” she said.
Said Waites: “I’m not sure we have the same sense of pride in our community as other parts of the state do, or recognize that buildings or places or cemeteries can really tell a story.”
She hopes the destruction of the Elmore store can be a catalyst for changing that.
Reach Click at (803) 771-8386 or Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.