Civil Rights in Columbia

March 19, 2014

Memories flood old Palmetto Compress warehouse tour

Ex-Ward 1 residents recall black neighborhood lost to urban renewal

A handful of residents who once lived in the sprawling black area of downtown Columbia known as Ward 1 were invited back Wednesday to tour one of its last standing vestiges – a cotton warehouse recently pulled back from the brink of demolition.

For generations, the four-story, 320,000-square-foot Palmetto Compress Warehouse has stood overlooking Blossom Street at the city’s southwest entrance on the edge of the old cotton warehouse district. The structure endured even as the other pieces of Ward 1 gave way to development.

The building’s owners struggled for years to find a redevelopment fit before moving forward with a plan last year to sell it to a student housing development company that would have demolished it. However, city of Columbia leaders intervened and saved the building, purchasing it for $5.6 million. The city recently sold the building at a $100,000 profit to Palmetto Compress Preservation Developers, who plan to convert it into a hotel, condos and retail center.

The group also wants to include a Ward 1 museum that harkens back to the area’s past.

“We want to capture a time in our history and give the story about the strength of place,” said Rosie Craig, a Vista businesswoman who has given $300,000 toward arranging financing for the project, which was set to close this month but recently received a six-month contract extension from the city.

Mammoth in size, the warehouse, which could hold 50,000 cotton bales in its day, could easily have dominated the skyline in that area of town, but only one of the returning residents Wednesday had ever set foot in the voluminous and ancient brick veneer and wood structure until now.

Richard Caughman, 70, worked in the warehouse for two months when he was 18 years old “cutting cotton” and moving 500-pound bales out of the warehouse on a hand truck and down a deck to a now-gone compressor building.

Born in 1943, Caughman lived at 509 Pulaski St. At age 21, he got married and moved to Greene Street, and after about seven years, in the early 1970s had to move out of that house. “Things were being torn down, and disassembled,” Caughman said.

The Ward 1 story still is very much an open sore in Columbia’s history, with many black residents still bitter about what they consider the razing of a thriving community in the name of urban renewal. The area now is largely controlled by the University of South Carolina.

Beginning in the late 1960s through the 1980s, black residents lost their elementary and high schools in Ward 1 and homes, churches and businesses.

Hundreds of houses, shops and businesses covered the Ward 1 area from Main Street to Huger Street, and Gervais Street to east of Blossom Street.

“I’m still angry about it,” said Virginia Yon, 64, who grew up in Ward 1, left to go up North, and now is back in Columbia. Yon toured the cotton warehouse Wednesday and is in favor of saving the building and converting it to useful commerce.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, who stopped in at the tour briefly at its beginning, said Ward 1 is part of the city’s fiber and should be remembered at the Palmetto Compress Warehouse.

“Since this wonderful city started in March of 1786, you can’t tell the history of the city of Columbia without telling the history of Ward 1. They’re inextricably intertwined into the rich, deep, powerful and painful history of our city,” Benjamin said.

“This was (like) a cotton field,” said Eugene Mickens, 66, as he inspected a 10,000-square-foot section of the warehouse’s second floor, walking across the pitched, 2-inch thick wood floors, held up by 6-inch thick wooden joists. “There was a whole lot of work going on over here.”

The former Ward 1 residents, who have formed an association in Columbia to keep up with each other and issues, still identify with their former residences by address.

Mattie Johnson Roberson, 71, and her siblings grew at 827 Assembly St., for instance, currently the site of the Koger Center for the Performing Arts.

Mickens grew up at 912 Pendleton St., Joe Cheeseboro, 66, in the 900 block of Pendleton Street and Lincoln Street.

Roberson said one of the worst chapters in the memories of Ward 1 residents, is that city leaders condemned their community as blighted in order to justify their actions in overtaking the neighborhood. And many of the former Ward 1 residents want nothing further to do with the area.

USC history professor Bobby Donaldson said the players in the Ward 1 story stretch beyond the University of South Carolina.

“It was a whole lot of activities going on in this area – a lot,” said 70-year-old Richard Caughman. “A lot of it would make your hair stand on your head.

“I remember one day back in the early ’70s, right here (in the yard of the Palmetto Compress Warehouse) I saw a truckload of Klansmen with their hoods on come down this street (Devine Street) from Huger Street.

“And I remember my grandmother saying, ‘Y’all come on, get in the house – don’t say nothing to those people,’ because if they were going to ride down the street in broad daylight like that, anything could happen to you.”

Caughman said his grandmother was a bootlegger, selling moonshine to make a living, in addition to walking the railroad tracks to nearby Olympia where she toted laundry back to her home to wash and iron.

The group told stories of a dense, yet close-knit, sprawling black neighborhood where mostly Jewish businessmen ran the neighborhood stores and which was replete with Sunday liquor houses and houses of ill-repute.

But Caughman said he dared not to ever walk past neighbors’ homes without greeting them coming and going. “What was so nice about living in this area, you were part of everybody’s family,” said Caughman. “And you were never hungry. You could go to anywhere (to a neighbor’s home) to eat.”

Craig said she hopes the Palmetto Compress sparks some healing.

“These old buildings keep stories and they keep the stories of the people – all the people,” Craig said. “And they keep the good ones, they keep the bad ones, and the ugly ones. But we’re all here together and it’s a new day and I am putting my money where my mouth is.”

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