The Main Street of 1960s-era Columbia with its bustling clothing and jewelry stores, dime store lunch counters, and neon movie marquees is gone now, recalled only in memory.
But nine new historic markers, set to be unveiled Friday will serve as reminders of a time in the city’s past when segregation ruled the day and young black students launched a movement to alter the racial landscape of the city and the South.
The panels, seven erected on the west side of Main Street, were installed as part of Columbia SC 63, a city initiative that began in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of the pivotal civil rights year of 1963.
The installation “gives a sense of history first of all and it also allows us to reminisce about the struggle that we had coming through,” said the Rev. Simon Bouie, who as a college student was arrested for occupying a lunch booth at the Eckerd’s drugstore during a March 1960 sit-in demonstration. “The markers will be a reminder of what it was like during that time and the sacrifices that were made by many of the students across the city and across the state.”
Bouie, whose trespassing conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, will be among those who will mark the occasion at 10 a.m. Friday with S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal and USC historian Bobby Donaldson. The public is invited to take a walk down Main Street to visit the locations of markers that pinpoint sites of sit-ins and demonstrations.
“I really think that Columbia needed something” to mark the struggle and educate a younger generation, said Bouie, pastor of Zion AME Church in Philadelphia. “The markers are going to bring to bear some of the feelings that need to be brought to bear, and it really puts our city back on the map on really being a forward and progressive city.”
Kim Jamieson, of the region’s convention and visitors bureau, agreed, saying the installations will allow Columbians and tourists “to interact with the history” and bring the past alive.
The black and tan metal markers, standing about 42” high with tilted panels, are positioned at junctures along Main Street, which was the scene of dozens of protests and demonstrations during the 1960s. Led by NAACP leaders and students from Columbia’s two black colleges, Benedict College and Allen University, the demonstrations resonated throughout the city and beyond. As blacks marched, many whites countered with their own protests of impending social change.
By 1963 the “white” and “colored” signs that had relegated blacks to second-class citizenship began to come down; rigid segregation, as it had been practiced since the end of Reconstruction, also began to crumble, although slowly.
The first two historic markers are at Main and Gervais streets, in the shadow of the State House and the Confederate battle flag that still flies over the Confederate Soldiers Monument. The capitol was the scene of a 1961 march that cemented the constitutional rights of student protesters to air their grievances at the place where laws were made.
Hundreds of students from high schools and colleges marched on March 2, 1961, and 187 were arrested on charges of breach of the peace. Included among the black students was one white USC student, Frederick Hart, who was downtown and joined the march. Lawyers Lincoln C. Jenkins and Matthew J. Perry, renowned for their tireless civil rights legal work, argued the case to the Supreme Court.
In February 1963, the high court overturned the guilty verdicts, finding in Edwards v. South Carolina that the students’ First Amendment rights had been violated by their arrests, a case that was cited in the modern Occupy Columbia lawsuit that was settled earlier this year.
A marker in front of Zion Baptist Church at 801 Washington St. will recall the historic red brick structure as the launch point for the Edwards march and other protests and as a “safe haven for student activists.”
At Main and Washington Streets, two panels serve as reminders of earlier groundbreaking civil rights fights, including the 1947 case launched by Columbia businessman George Elmore to overturn the Democratic white primary and the 1951 Briggs v. Elliott school desegregation case, which laid the foundation for the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning separate but equal schools.
The panel on Sarah Mae Flemming is proof that events in South Carolina helped lay the groundwork for the Montgomery bus boycott and the national furor over Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus. Flemming boarded a bus on June 22, 1954, and sat in the “whites only” section when a seat became available. The bus driver ordered her out to the rear but she refused, exiting the front of the bus. Her lawsuit against the South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. resulted in the integration of public accommodations.
Near Main and Hampton streets, where the old Woolworth’s Department store once bustled with patrons, a panel will mark the site of sit-ins that shook the city to the core. Lennie Glover, a divinity student at Benedict College, was stabbed during a sit-in by an unknown white assailant, but he recovered and later returned to the picket lines.
In the middle of the 1500 block of Main Street, a panel will recall the legal efforts to dismantle segregation and point to Columbia’s prominence in overturning the longstanding practice of waiting on whites first and refusing service at lunch counters to seated black customers. Four of the 17 sit-in cases that were heard by the nation’s high court emerged out of Columbia’s protests.
The late Columbia Mayor Lester Bates is remembered in a panel in front of City Hall. Bates understand that change was coming to the South and began meeting with white and black leaders to assure that Columbia’s reputation as an “All-American City” would not be damaged by racial conflict. Despite protests from whites, Bates was able to successfully negotiate with businesses to end to segregation signs and become open to non-discriminatory hiring.
Finally, a panel on Waverly Street will mark one of the most tempestuous civil rights moments in the city’s history. Malcolm X came to Columbia on April 17, 1963, to argue his brand of black nationalism was the way forward. Originally set to speak at Township Auditorium, he was denied that venue by white leaders and instead spoke at a small mosque at 2217 Waverly Street, which no longer stands.
Historian Donaldson acknowledged it was difficult to winnow the Columbia civil rights experience into nine downtown panels, but he expects the effort will spawn a more comprehensive look at the city’s history and ways to tell it.
“We knew we had to be quite selective in this first round,” Donaldson said Wednesday. “My hope is this will help to set the stage for what could and should be further efforts to mark the history.”
Columbia SC 63 works in partnership with Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau; Historic Columbia Foundation, which has made black history part of its core mission; and the University of South Carolina, which marked the 50th anniversary of its integration, bringing back the two living graduates, Henrie Monteith Treadwell and James L. Solomon in September.
Donaldson said the year-long effort continues to unearth surprising and little-known elements of the movement.
“I think the magnitude of what happened here is just beginning to be realized.”
Civil rights weekend
Take a walk down Main Street Friday to learn more about the city’s civil rights history and the sit-ins and protests that occupied the city during the early 1960s. Columbia SC 63 hosts a gathering at 10 a.m., corner of Gervais and Main Streets, to unveil nine new historic markers.
Saturday: Columbia SC 63 hosts bus tours of important civil rights sites and landmarks in downtown Columbia at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. The tours are free but because seating is limited advance registration is required at CivilRightsBusTours.eventbrite.com.
Sunday: Historic Columbia Foundation opens its first exhibit at the Modjeska Monteith Simkins House 1-5 p.m., telling the story of a woman the foundation describes as “South Carolina’s most influential human rights advocate of the 20th century.”