Civil Rights in Columbia

Bolton: Dedication of BTW auditorium sparks revival

THE DEDICATION of the renovated Booker T. Washington High School auditorium last week quickly transformed into a revival, as one person after another thanked God for preserving the last remaining building of the storied institution that educated thousands of black students during segregation.

I wasn’t surprised. The connection between the school, its students and area families and residents was as much spiritual as it was educational. Booker T. Washington wasn’t simply a school; it was a sanctuary; it educated the whole child, preparing students to thrive despite the discrimination and hatred that confronted them daily.

Students faced extreme restrictions in downtown Columbia and were barred from USC’s campus, but at the school just blocks to the south of the city’s segregated restaurants and hotels, their teachers preached to them that there were no mountains they couldn’t climb and that no system — not even the South’s system of legal discrimination — could hold them back.

Well-trained, highly qualified black teachers — many of whom possessed advanced degrees — dedicated themselves to educating and equipping students with the knowledge, self-esteem and desire to succeed. Every student was expected and challenged to learn. No excuses.

After having had their alma mater shuttered rather abruptly in 1974 and seeing building after building demolished over the years, all graduates and supporters had to lean on were their memories and, above all, their faith.

That faith and their deep devotion to Booker T. Washington and what it represented led alumni and supporters to mount a years-long campaign to preserve as much as possible of the school that, for decades, was the heart and soul of the black communities surrounding it.

On Friday, the nearly 40-year effort bore fruit, and the faithful didn’t allow the moment to pass without giving God his due.

It began with an invocation by Pastor Samuel Goodwin of Stedfast Christian Center, a graduate and celebrated athlete and coach at the school, and continued as USC professor Bobby Donaldson gave an eloquent overview of not only the project but the key elements of the school’s history.

Dr. Donaldson said there were some who insisted the design for renovating the building wouldn’t work. “Today, that building is standing,” he said. He recognized Doris Glymph Greene, a 1959 graduate who helped lead the effort to form the Booker T. Washington High School which has worked over the decades to preserve the school’s rich history and memorabilia. In addition to the formation of an alumni association, class reunions have continued and the foundation offers generous scholarships and holds a heritage banquet every year.

“Today, Mrs. Greene, we are reminded at this dedication that the prayers of the righteous availeth much,” Dr. Donaldson said.

USC President Harris Pastides, whose administration has been characterized as perhaps the most welcoming, helpful and understanding over the years, said that Friday’s ceremony was “about a dream that would not be deferred. It was stalled but would not be deferred.”

Dr. Pastides emphasized that the work to preserve the school was no common project but a renovation in a greater sense. “Renovate is a Latin word meaning to make new, to impart new vigor, to restore life.”

Indeed. As I toured the facility, I heard more than one person use the term “resurrection” to describe what had transpired.

Henry Hopkins, a 1950s graduate and current president of the er T. Washington foundation, began his remarks by asking, “Isn’t it good to be home?”

And, then, he too noted that it was by divine intervention, reciting the words of Jesus: “If one or two are gathered in my name, there I will be also,” he said, reflecting on the united, tireless work many did in hopes of seeing Booker T. Washington properly memorialized.

“We never lost the faith and we worked to make this a reality,” he said.

The theme continued as the Rev. Solomon Jackson Jr., a former athlete and 1971 graduate, as well as Fannie Phelps Adams, a former student, teacher and administrator at the school, thanked God as they shared thoughts with the roughly 500 or so gathered for the event.

The Rev. Jackson played a pivotal role in making this a reality. The winner of a $260 million Powerball jackpot in 2009 contributed $1.7 million to ensure that the auditorium building would be preserved.

But Friday was not only a day of revival for Washingtonians, it was a day of redemption for USC, which deserves credit for finally doing the right thing.

The university contributed $734,000 as well as the time and attention of some key faculty and staff members toward the effort, leading many — including Mayor Steve Benjamin and others (count me in the number) to express pride in their college alma mater for making this happen.

Quite frankly, it never should have taken this long and the delay did little to improve USC’s image among many African-Americans deeply hurt when Booker T. Washington, the hub of the black communities surrounding it, was snatched away.

Booker, 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. Nine of my brothers and sisters attended the school, with eight graduating before it closed.

USC has always been considered a major catalyst — some would say villain — in hastening the closing of the school. The university quickly gobbled up the school and, with the help of the city of Columbia and zoning regulations, its development foundation also bought up Wheeler Hill, the predominantly black community around Booker, supposedly for expansion. When the university decided not to expand to the east side of Pickens Street, a developer was brought in to redevelop the land as an upscale residential community. Needlessly to say, the poor blacks who had been displaced couldn’t afford to return.

While standing in a newly renovated classroom in the auditorium that has been named in honor of Fannie Phelps Adams, a teary-eyed Doris Glymph Greene reflected on the horror that came over her in 1974 when she learned her high school alma mater would be closed. She said she knew it would eventually happen, but “it came as a shock.”

“It’s like a child being snatched from its mother’s arms.”

Despite the decision to close the school, she said she knew right then that one day, it would be memorialized. She knew because she was compelled to engage the fight to make it happen and that many others would stand alongside.

She said that the faith of graduates and supporters was strong and that the very essence of what the school taught helped people stay focused on that goal. “There was an expectation that we would be contributors to this community,” she said, adding that contributed to the continued push and cohesive effort.

“This is now a monument. It used to be a building, but it’s now a monument.”

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