When Frank Washington graduated from his all-black high school in 1945, he already was fed up with life in the Jim Crow South.
“We didn’t have much freedom,” said Washington, now 87, “and no dignity with the little freedom that we did have.”
But Washington declined to join his high school classmates in leaving Columbia for more tolerant Northern cities. He wanted change and he wanted it at home.
It just so happened that the seeds of change were being planted right then in Columbia.
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It is little known that, 70 years ago, Columbia hosted what is thought to have been one of the the largest civil rights gatherings the South had seen at the time.
Washington was among the young people who gathered in South Carolina’s capital city in October 1946 to lay out their vision of an integrated South. Many of the thousands there, including 800 delegates, were white.
Columbia was chosen for the Southern Negro Youth Congress, historians say, because activists like Modjeska Simkins in Columbia and black newspaper editor John McCray of Charleston stirred up civil rights momentum in the Palmetto State. As a one-party state, South Carolina was the only state where blacks were not permitted to vote in Democratic primaries, where winning was tantamount to election.
“There was already a very strong civil rights infrastructure in place when the SNYC occurred,” said Bobby Donaldson, an associate history professor at the University of South Carolina. “You had a captive audience for this conference.”
Those attending the conference heard from civil rights activists and historians. They also broke into groups to write legislation they hoped the U.S. Congress would one day pass. Filled with optimism after U.S. forces had defeated fascism in World War II, they sought to drive out discrimination at home.
“They wanted to expose to the world that the South had this very rich African-American heritage, and it also had this really ugly heritage that ought to be addressed … and that it is no longer acceptable for things like lynching to occur in this post-war world,” said Erik Gellman, an associate history professor at Roosevelt University.
W.E.B. Du Bois capped the gathering with a historic speech titled “Behold the Land,” encouraging talented young people to remain in the South and fight for equality.
Many did just that. Some went on to star in the civil rights movement.
Washington joined the NAACP in 1946, later leading the group’s Columbia chapter for 16 years. He said the gathering, and especially Du Bois’ speech, steered him toward a life of activism.
“It gave me quite a voice for one to bring about changes.”