Civil Rights in Columbia

February 27, 2013

Bolton: Martin, Columbia’s Booker T. Washington High helped students excel in ’50s, ’60s

THE LATE Thomas S. Martin’s name has echoed in my mind as I’ve read The State’s stories and letters to the editor and heard conversation around town about Columbia’s commemoration of 1963 and the beginning of the end of segregation.

THE LATE Thomas S. Martin’s name has echoed in my mind as I’ve read The State’s stories and letters to the editor and heard conversation around town about Columbia’s commemoration of 1963 and the beginning of the end of segregation.

Even as teens and young adults were pressed into growing up and maturing before their time in a system buoyed by discrimination and hatred, Mr. Martin and the many equally outstanding educators at Booker T. Washington High School waged an admirable — and winning — campaign to educate black students.

Those students faced extreme restrictions in downtown Columbia, but at the school just blocks to the south of the city’s segregated restaurants and hotels, their teachers taught them that there were no hurdles they couldn’t clear, no mountains they couldn’t scale, no system that could hold them back.

Mr. Martin, a physical education teacher, challenged his students to look far beyond their circumstances, their culture and the limitations — whether social or geographical — they faced in Columbia.

In his 30 years at Booker T. Washington, Mr. Martin refused to simply teach the basics. He offered his students the wide world of physical education and health, teaching them tennis as well as Jewish folk dances and gymnastics, despite the fact that many of the children of the 1950s and ’60s didn’t think those activities were for blacks.

The absence of tennis courts was no barrier; he and his students built their own using clay delivered to the schoolyard. They made rollers from metal barrels, and packed and raked the clay, marked off the lines and borrowed fences and tennis rackets from Fort Jackson.

The innovative educator also introduced badminton and helped lead the way as Booker became one of the first schools in the state to use the uneven parallel bars, the vaulting horse and the rings.

Mr. Martin exemplified the black educator of his time, and at Booker T. Washington in particular. They knew the obstacles their students faced and took it upon themselves to educate and equip them with the knowledge, self-esteem and desire to succeed. Students were expected to learn. The stakes were too high to do otherwise.

In addition to striving for academic excellence, the youngsters were encouraged to sing Negro spirituals in the school’s John Works Chorus. By the time they left, nearly all the students had sung in that chorus. They also were all encouraged to participate in skits that taught lessons about rising above the South’s system of legal discrimination.

After leaving Booker T. Washington shortly before it closed in the early 1970s, he went to work for the National Youth Sports Program at the University of South Carolina, where he became an assistant professor of health and physical education. For 20 years, Mr. Martin also managed the swimming pool at Drew Park; he coached the “Drew Park Pool Sharks” swim team, which competed across the South in the ’50s and ’60s. In 1980, the city named a park after the beloved community leader.

I was fortunate enough to be among the many young boys and girls who benefitted from the work of Mr. Martin and so many others who made that National Youth Sports Program a success. You won’t be surprised to know that I was exposed to health education, swimming, the vaulting horse, the rings and so many other things I had never experienced before.

The one thing I’ve always lamented, however, is that I never experienced the Booker T. Washington High School I grew up hearing about. Most of my brothers and sisters are graduates of Booker, and I always wanted to be a Golden Tornado. Booker T. Washington, which opened in 1916 as the first all-black school in Columbia, closed in 1974, three years after it was integrated to conform with federal regulations.

The school was the hub of the community I grew up in; not only did students gravitate to it, families did.

For black children, Booker T. Washington offered an immeasurable hope. How could it not be with such strong, positive role models similar to Mr. Martin in class after class? Booker T. Washington had a talent-laden faculty that included teachers from popular black colleges such as Howard University as well as such Northern universities as University of Chicago, Harvard and Princeton. It was common in the ’40s and ’50s to find an English teacher with a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins or Columbia University. Mr. Martin, who died in 1993, earned a master’s degree from the University of Michigan.

How could the school stockpile such a talented staff? Because most professional fields besides the ministry and teaching were closed to blacks. The result was that for almost 60 years, Booker graduated a long list of excellent students who would become doctors, lawyers, educators, judges, musicians and businessmen and businesswomen.

Graduates include the likes of the late Judge Matthew Perry and educator Celia Phelps Martin. Educator Fannie Phelps Adams, Hall of Fame basketball coach George Glymph, football greats J.C. Caroline and Sam Goodwin also graduated from the school. Most of them and many other graduates ended up returning to the school as coaches, teachers or administrators.

When news came that Booker T. Washington would be closed, it was a big blow to black residents, many of whom still today blame the University of South Carolina, which gobbled up the school, for its demise.

But though the school’s physical structure was demolished, its legacy lives on. Not long after it was closed, the Booker T. Washington Foundation was formed to preserve its great history as well as its memorabilia. An alumni association was formed, and the John Works Chorus was revived. In addition, class reunions continue, and the foundation offers generous scholarships and holds a heritage banquet every year.

One of the driving forces behind the formation of the Booker T. Washington Foundation was Doris Glymph Greene, a 1959 graduate who protested the segregation of Columbia’s downtown lunch counters in the 1960s.

Of course, considering the broad and bold education that the innovative and caring educators at Booker T. Washington bestowed upon their graduates, that shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or

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