Anyone taking a stroll down Main Street in downtown Columbia can get a history lesson from the civil rights struggles faced here and in other Southern cities just 50 years ago.
Columbia SC 63, which formed about two years ago to shed light on Columbia’s civil rights history, posted nine historical markers at different locations around the city, most of which are on Main Street.
During February’s Black History Month, take some time to check out a few of the sites around downtown Columbia. Pair it with lunch for a great afternoon outing.
Corner of Main and Washington streets
Sarah Mae Flemming was a 20-year-old maid from Eastover when she stepped onto an SCE&G bus on June 22, 1954, and refused to be treated like a second-class citizen.
Flemming had taken a seat in the “whites-only” section in the front of the bus when the bus driver ordered her to move. She tried to exit through the front door, though blacks at the time were only allowed to use the back door, and the bus driver blocked her and hit her in the abdomen, according to Columbia SC 63. She was left at the corner of Main and Washington streets, but her fight with the bus system did not end there.
She filed a suit against SCE&G, which initially was rejected by a federal court. It then went to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., which struck down segregation on city buses. Flemming made national headlines, and her achievement set a precedent for Rosa Parks’ refusal to vacate a “whites-only” bus seat a year later in Alabama.
2217 Waverly St.
Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X traveled across the South in the 1950s and 1960s and stopped by Columbia on April 17, 1963. He was initially supposed to speak at Township Auditorium (now The Township), though that fell through when county officials forced the manager to back out of the contract.
He was then supposed to speak at a Masonic Lodge in West Columbia, but that event also was canceled. He finally spoke at a small mosque, Muhammad’s Temple of Islam, at 2217 Waverly St. (The building is no longer there.)
He spoke for nearly three hours in front of about 70 people crammed inside the tiny building, The State newspaper reported at the time. His critics called him a violent racist, and his supporters argued that he was a human rights activist who spoke his mind. Regardless, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in African-American history.
1530 Main St.
When four black college students refused to leave a segregated restaurant’s lunch counter after requesting service in February 1960, it sparked a meaningful trend that spread across the South.
The so-called Greensboro sit-ins inspired young black South Carolinians to hold marches, sit-ins and demonstrations to show their disagreement with segregation. One sit-in occurred at 1530 Main St., which was an Eckerd store at the time, in March 1960. During the sit-in, Allen University student Simon Bouie was arrested. Bouie later credited the student activism with helping change Columbia.
801 Washington St.
Founded in 1865 in the aftermath of the Civil War, Zion Baptist Church became a spiritual home for newly freed blacks in Columbia and thrives to this day.
The church started in a home on the 1400 block of Gadsden Street and moved in 1871 to its current location at 801 Washington St., according to the church’s website.
It became one of the largest black congregations in Columbia and served as a meeting place for several organizations, including the NAACP and the Negro Citizens Committee. Student activists in the 1960s also saw it as a safe haven when participating in demonstrations nearby.
1100 Gervais St.
Groups of high school and college students peacefully marched March 2, 1961, to the grounds of the S.C. State House to protest treatment of blacks and were met by the strong arm of the law.
Law enforcement arrested 187 protesters on the State House grounds. All except for one were black.
The arrests resulted in Edwards v. South Carolina, in which the U.S. Supreme Court determined the demonstrators were within their constitutional rights to express their grievances about segregation. This made way for more demonstrations nationwide.