Civil Rights in Columbia

August 1, 2014

Have you heard of Clemson's black history museum?

No? Board members hope to change that with new campaign.

When Robert Kemp steps inside the Calhoun Bridge Center in Clemson, he is transported back to when he was a first-grader at Calhoun Elementary School.

“It brings back memories,” Kemp said, smiling as he discussed the building that once housed Clemson’s all-black elementary school where Kemp was a student.

“I can see my professor now standing outside,” he said. “Professor M. P. Robinson. He would stand out every morning when we would walk to school here rain, snow, sleet or shine.”

Now an effort is trying to preserve the history that tells the story of the African Americans community in Clemson.

The Clemson Area African American Museum was founded in 2010, but more recently, the project has fallen flat and the group is looking to revive the effort.

“We are trying to make sure the historical events and the uniqueness of the African Americans in this area are preserved for upcoming generations,” said Eloise James, a founding board member.

But currently when people hear about the museum, the reaction is often the same. They don’t know what it is, said Pat Kemp, Robert’s wife and fellow museum board member.

The museum’s board recently announced plans to rebrand the small museum and to increase its presence.

The effort includes a new website, a higher level of social media presence and increased visibility in the community through more programming and changing exhibits.

The museum began as a simple idea.

In 2001, then Clemson Mayor Larry Abernathy saw potential for a place to celebrate the area’s African-American culture in an old building that once housed the city’s only all-black school. The city purchased the building from the school district with the intent to create a community center for public use.

James, who was then a member of City Council, remembers that time well.

“We knew the building would come empty,” James said. “We had visited other communities where the same situation had happened and they had renovated the buildings and had put community agencies in the building.”

After the renovations, community organizations began to seek space. Currently the arts center occupies part of the building, and the child development center occupies the other large portion, and the museum occupies one room.

The museum is a small space chock-full of items at every turn.

Posters, books, glass cases and random artifacts stretch from wall to wall. In its four-year existence, the museum has tried to bridge the gap in local African-American history.

But it’s not been easy.

Part of the problem, James says, is trying to attract the younger generation.

But the rebrand is aimed at giving the museum more visibility through social media and through the state’s tourist agencies and shaking up the museum’s programming.

In the coming months, the museum will introduce a number of new community programs. They will cover popular topics such as health and nutrition, cooking and genealogy.

In addition, the museum is planning to partner with larger museums, which will allow the local museum to bring in new exhibits on a more consistent basis.

“You have to start somewhere and that’s what we’re doing,” James says.

“And our goal is to continue and to enhance and make better.”

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