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  • A group of students, faculty and staff stand on the basketball court during halftime. At the center of the group, Senior Woman Administrator Maria Hickman hands a game ball to Professor Bobby Donaldson, Director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research.

Civil Rights Center Students Make History

Gamecocks celebrate CRC

Under the bright lights of the Colonial Life Arena, a group of students and a history professor line up on the court. It’s half time of the UofSC women’s basketball game against Alabama, and the Gamecocks have a tremendous lead. In the midst of the excitement, however, everyone takes a moment to commemorate civil rights victories.

These students and their professor, Bobby Donaldson, work diligently to preserve the history of South Carolina’s role in the civil rights movement.  As part of the half-time ceremony, Maria Hickman presents Donaldson with a game ball on behalf of Dawn Staley and the team, a gesture to honor the efforts of UofSC’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research.

Over the loudspeaker, the announcer welcomes fans to visit a special version of the center’s “Justice for All” exhibit, featuring photos and stories of Columbia, SC, and UofSC’s campus. It’s an exhibit that catches people off guard, especially those who call Columbia home. 

“Many were surprised to know that even the very space where the women’s basketball team plays on a weekly basis was once a historic neighborhood,” Donaldson explains in an interview.

History of campus on display

The Colonial Life Arena is in a location once home to Ward One, a predominantly African American community, explains Rebekah Turnmire, an employee of the center and a doctoral student in the History Department.

“Our campus, the buildings that we use every day, sit on these neighborhoods and these communities that families lived in, thrived in, that had their own inner dynamics,” Turnmire says. “Making those stories visible is really important.”

One of the stories Turnmire has explored at the center is that of Celia Dial Saxon, who was born enslaved and graduated from the State Normal School on UofSC’s campus in 1877. She went on to work as an educator for more than half a century. Turnmire learned about Saxon and other teachers through the oral history from past students of Booker T. Washington High School, one of the schools where Saxon taught and at one time the largest predominantly African American high school in the state. 

Making those stories visible is really important.

– Rebekah Turnmire 

As a teacher herself, Turnmire’s main role is serving K–12K12 students and educators. The center offers programs like “Traveling Trunks,” which offer elementary school classes access to select items from the collection. For an online teaching institute, she and a team created virtual tours of historic African American educational sites, including the Booker T. Washington Auditorium. The high school closed its doors in 1974 but still holds memories for many.

“If community stories don’t get told, those communities—in the minds of a lot people—don’t exist, which is not true,” Turnmire says.

Nitzia Orozco, an undergraduate double-majoring in political science and history, says her role as a research assistant at the center has made her realize how much she did not learn about history in grade school, especially South Carolina’s contributions to the civil rights movement.

I get to see newspapers and member IDs from people who helped directly with the civil rights movement. I have also organized photos and even once saw one of my professors in them!” she says. “It just amazes me how recent the history of civil rights in the United States is, despite others making it seem so long ago.”

Stories from the community

In working with the center’s archives, not only do the students get to learn about history, they get to experience it firsthand as they reach out to members of the community for primary sources.

Cecil J. Williams is one of the photographers the center features prominently. During the height of the Civil Right Movement in the South, Williams captured such notable events as the desegregation of Clemson University in 1963 and the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968. Williams is known for an iconic photo in which he gazes into the camera lens as his friend snaps a shot of him drinking from a fountain labeled “White Only.”

Justin G. Mitchell, an undergraduate student who also works at the center, recently interviewed Williams for a class. Mitchell says he was “starstruck” meeting him, but Williams likewise was excited to learn about Mitchell’s work with Donaldson. A broadcast journalism major, Mitchell came on staff with the center to help produce the forthcoming podcast. 

Mitchell says he aspires to be a history maker, but the center director says Mitchell and his fellow students are already reaching that goal. 

“In fact, that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Donaldson says. “They are making history. They’re taking items and putting them on display, storing them in acid-free folders and scanning them to be seen online.” 

For Mitchell and other students, working at the center underscores the fact that the Civil Rights Movement is relatively recent history.

“Every Black History Month, Cecil Williams’ infamous photo of him drinking from the “white only” water fountain circulates, and people are just so amazed that he’s still here,” says Mitchell. 

In addition to providing a home for archival materials, the center takes seriously the mission to tell the story of the state’s civil rights involvement by making history relevant to today’s issues. 

Mitchell says the center is an amazing resource for people in the community to learn about history in South Carolina.

“It’s definitely something for everyone to get involved with. We have people of all different backgrounds that work at the center.” That’s why it was so important for Mitchell to make it to the game at the Colonial Life Arena and to walk out on the court with his team of colleagues. 

With student employees from a wide range of disciplines, “this diverse group of perspectives pushes us to think differently about how we communicate the work we do, how we market the work we do and how we make it more accessible to our student body and faculty,” Donaldson says.

Justice for Allwill tour throughout 2022 , and the center looks forward to creating a permanent home at the site of Booker T. Washington High School in the future.  


Banner photo from Gamecocks Basketball, featuring Troy Knox, Rebekah Turnmire, Rachel Young, Maria Hickman, Bobby Donaldson, Frank Gause and DJ Holland.

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