For nearly six decades it stood as a red brick oasis from discrimination for Columbia’s African-American community.
On Friday, those who loved Booker T. Washington High School stood, applauded and shed a few tears in gratitude for the resurrection, as one former student put it, of the last building of the once sprawling campus near Wheeler Hill, a neighborhood that had been theirs.
“If you could make it here, to Booker T. Washington, everything would be all right,” said the Rev. Solomon Jackson Jr., a 1971 graduate who contributed $1.7 million from his $260 million Powerball lottery winnings in 2009 toward preserving the auditorium building. “It fed you physically. It fed you spiritually. It fed you education, for life.”
Jackson was among almost 500 people who jammed into the revitalized auditorium Friday for an invitation-only dedication. The event was sponsored by the University of South Carolina, which bought the campus in 1974 and has demolished most of its buildings. The nearly 34,000-square-foot auditorium building has remained for performing arts and other classes. Now, portions will be available to public organizations upon request.
USC has a checkered history with the four-acre campus and the surrounding, once-predominantly black neighborhoods.
But the university’s support for revitalization of the final building and USC’s $734,000 contribution toward the preservation of this touchstone of Columbia’s black history prompted Mayor Steve Benjamin and others to proclaim that they are proud of their Gamecock alma mater.
For an hour Friday morning, some 400 to 500 former students, their descendants and school supporters filled the 57-year-old auditorium to relive the importance of the school and what it meant in their lives. They cheered, shouted amens and laughed as speakers recounted the school’s history. Then they stood and sang its alma mater before touring the displays of memorabilia that date to the school’s early years in the first quarter of the 20th century. The oldest student to attend is 104, Donella Brown Wilson, who was there on Friday.
“This was a gem for learning and leadership in a segregated society,” 1950 graduate Henry Hopkins said from the auditorium stage.
Hopkins, as did others who recounted their elementary-through-high-school experiences, said the faculty and staff instilled in students a civic mentality that they should “work for a more perfect union.”
The 80-year-old joked that during his youth, people who lived in adjacent Wheeler Hill faced bleak futures. “But, hey, look at us now,” he said to hurrahs. “Instead of living in the shadow of yesterday, walk in the light of today and the hope of tomorrow,” Hopkins said.
“Isn’t it good to be home. After many years in exile, we’re all back.”
USC president Harris Pastides applied civil rights leader Modjeska Simkins’ remarks to the value of the school: “Make a way out of no way.”
“This is a billion-dollar contribution if we measure it in the spirit of the community,” Pastides said in thanking Jackson.
Booker T. Washington High graduated nearly 7,000 students between World War I and its 1974 closing several years after it had become an integrated school. At one time, it was believed to be South Carolina’s largest all-black public high school.
Among its best-known graduates are: the late federal judge Matthew Perry; Edward Sawyer Cooper, a former president of the American Heart Association; J.C. Caroline, a former running back with the Chicago Bears of the National Football League; and John Hurst Adams, a bishop with the African Methodist Episcopal church. The father of newly named National Security Adviser Susan Rice graduated from the school, said USC history professor Bobby Donaldson, who has compiled much of the historical information about the school.
Perhaps the warmest greeting from the crowd Friday was reserved for former student, guidance counselor, teacher and assistant principal Fannie Phelps Adams, 95.
Adams – intentionally outfitted in a gold-colored dress to commemorate the school’s gold and black colors – recounted how former teacher C.A. Johnson forgave her “little lie” that she was 6 and old enough to enroll in 1922. She was 5, but Adams told Johnson, “I’m ready to go to school.” Johnson later would have C.A. Johnson High School named for him.
The “whole child” education at Booker T. Washington fed Adams’ love of learning and commitment to pay it forward to others who followed.
“Children needed me,” Adams said, adding that’s how the whole faculty and staff felt about a holistic education. “That is what the principals and teachers at Booker T. Washington had in their souls.”
The 30 years of demolitions and deterioration made her and other graduates angry, Adams said in an interview. “You’re angry when you’re losing your life because that’s what Booker T. Washington was.”
The spirit of the school extends to the current generation.
Amber Lindsay, 24, is working on a post-graduate degree in USC’s music education program. Her grandmother graduated from Booker T. Washington and was barred from walking through USC’s campus during Jim Crow years.
Lindsay’s mother could not enroll at USC because of her race. “It hurts my heart,” Lindsay said.
“I can’t relate to that,” she said at the auditorium. “For them to actually go through that and for me to attend the same university is profound and significant.”
Chloe Greene, 22, graduated from USC and works in its African-American studies department.
Friday’s dedication was bittersweet for Greene. She recalled the demolition of much of the Booker T. Washington campus and the incursion of the Strom Thurmond Wellness Center into what had been Ward 1, an African-American neighborhood.
But the preservation of the high school auditorium left Greene feeling proud of the state’s flagship university.
“It’s something I’m going to tell my children,” she said.
USC officials say the Booker T. Washington High School auditorium building will be available to the community.