Civil Rights in Columbia: A garden that represents unity and change

cclick@thestate.comApril 8, 2014 

Pearl Fryer works on one of his plants Tuesday in the USC garden.


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    Read more about Columbia’s civil rights story at

    Pearl Fryar’s topiaries and Nikky Finney’s poem will be centerpieces of the USC commemorative garden, located just off Pendleton Street near the Osborne administration building. The garden will be dedicated at 11 a.m. Friday. The event is free and open to the public.

    Nikky Finney’s poem: “The Irresistible Ones”

    They arrive knocking at Osborne’s great garnet door. They want to study mathematics, join the debate team, and sing in the choir. They are three in a sea of six thousand. With each step they pole-vault shards of doubt, sticks of dynamite, and stubborn hate mail. With them arrives the bright peppermint of change. The new laws of the new day can no longer resist these three irresistible ones, in a sea of six thousand, stepping through a door now garnet and black.

  • If you go

    USC will continue its 50th anniversary celebration Saturday when the Department of Theatre and Dance and the School of Music presents “Our Journey Forward,” 7:30 p.m. at the Koger Center for the Arts. The centerpiece of the performance will be the premiere of a new work by Wideman/Davis Dance, commissioned by USC for this event and set to a new composition by Bert Ligon, director of jazz studies at the USC School of Music. In addition, the performance will include theatrical performances that highlight the struggles and aspirations of the civil rights movement through the evening.

Internationally known topiary artist Pearl Fryar was ready Tuesday to situate his three topiaries in the USC garden that will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the university’s desegregation and honor the three students who broke the color barrier.

But first the Bishopville artist and creator of the Pearl Fryar Topiary Garden announced that the juniper bushes needed a little trim.

His apprentice Michael Baker fired up the gasoline-powered hedge clipper. As onlookers watched, Fryar began the cheerful, painstaking process of making natural art for the ages, clipping wayward sprigs while leaving fresh green tips.

“I don’t want them to become woody,” Fryar said of his handiwork.

No worries there. The 74-year-old artist expects he will spend a lot of time in and out of the commemorative garden that sits on the north side of the Osborne administration building, tending to the two double spiral-shaped trees and a smaller juniper with three carefully shorn balls of greenery and trailing greens that will eventually unite.

Henrie Monteith Treadwell, James L. Solomon and the late Robert G. Anderson entered Osborne Sept. 11, 1963 to register for classes and end segregation at the flagship school. Treadwell and Solomon will return Friday for the formal dedication of the 4,500-square-foot walled garden.

Fryar’s topiaries will hover over a small monument that contains a poem, etched into the granite, written by South Carolina native Nikky Finney, now a USC professor.

The poem, “The Irresistible Ones,” is short but packs history and longing and struggle into the lines. Finney, who will be unable to attend the 11 a.m. dedication, crafted a statement about the poem and her use of the word, “irresistible” that will be read Friday.

Fryar will make remarks about the ideas behind his topiary creation at the dedication. USC president Harris Pastides, student body president Lindsay Richardson and Columbia activist I.S. Leevy Johnson, a 1968 USC law school graduate, also will speak, along with Treadwell and Solomon.

Fryar, who has been the subject of a movie “A Man Named Pearl” and numerous articles about his work and his Bishopville garden, said this garden holds special meaning for the unity and change it represents.

As a college student, he was on the picket lines to desegregate lunch counters and other public places in his native North Carolina.

“If someone had told me 50 years ago I would be creating these for the three students who integrated, I would have said you are from outer space,” he said. “But that is what life is about, change.”

The commemorative garden was designed by a team that included Derek Gruner, university architect; Emily Jones, landscape architect; and Yancey Modesto, an architect and planner. All are with the university’s facilities department.

As Howard Wallace, of Wavering Place Landscape, the general contractor for the garden, dug the holes and placed the topiaries into the ground, Fryar expressed satisfaction with his handiwork.

“I’m proud of them, I really am,” he said.

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