Center for civil rights history, research created

The University of South Carolina will establish a Center for Civil Rights History and Research to chronicle the contributions of the Palmetto State to the American civil rights movement.

University President Harris Pastides announced the creation of the center Monday (Nov. 23). It will be the first single entity dedicated to telling South Carolina’s civil rights story.  Also Monday, Rep. James Clyburn, the state’s first African-American member of Congress since Reconstruction and the assistant House Democratic leader, said he will donate his congressional papers to the new center.

“I am honored to add my congressional papers to the University of South Carolina’s significant civil rights collection. The establishment of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research allows for my congressional papers to be a part of a larger effort to give vibrancy to South Carolina’s history and credence to its civil rights activities,” Clyburn said. “I look forward to the center, and my papers, helping us learn valuable lessons from our experiences.”   

The University of South Carolina has a significant collection of papers from noted civil rights leaders, including Joseph A. De Laine, John Bolt Culbertson, I. DeQuincey Newman and Modjeska Monteith Simkins, but currently they are not housed collectively or used in a way to best tell South Carolina’s story.

“In 2013, when USC commemorated the 50th anniversary of USC’s desegregation, our community of scholars had an opportunity to hear first-hand narratives from two of the university’s desegregation pioneers. At that time, we had already built a substantial political collection from key South Carolina figures, but realized that there needed to be an additional place to zero in on the state’s unique civil rights history — a place that would be accessible not only to USC students but to scholars worldwide,” Pastides said. “The Center for Civil Rights History and Research, anchored by Congressman Clyburn’s Congressional papers, is that place, and will house a substantial and growing collection that will tell the story of the ongoing struggle for equality and social justice in South Carolina.”

The center, a joint initiative with the College of Arts and Sciences, will be housed in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library and will provide educational programming, public engagement through conferences and lectures, and a treasure trove of primary documents for students and scholars interested in civil rights, said University Libraries Dean Thomas McNally.

“The story of the civil rights struggle in South Carolina has not been fully told,” McNally said. “This center captures what we already have and it becomes a magnet for papers that have not been committed yet. The congressman’s lead in giving his congressional papers to get us started is a significant beginning.”

Bobby Donaldson, a UofSC history professor and faculty principal of Preston Residential College, will chair the implementation committee, a group of 24 university and community leaders who will help guide the establishment of the new center.

“We’ve formed an implementation committee that represents leading work in civil rights scholarship at the university,” Donaldson said. “It brings together faculty and colleagues in education, arts and sciences, law, journalism and the libraries to work together on this.”

He said the center will build upon important groundwork that has been going on for decades on the UofSC campus in civil rights history, research and advocacy. The university has developed civil rights programming and teacher training workshops, and has acquired and processed important archival collections, including a path-breaking oral history project completed in the 1980s by Grace Jordan McFadden. The African American Studies program also has sponsored a series of events focused on civil rights in South Carolina.

“We’ve had a number of important projects and initiatives often shaped around a particular historic milestone or anniversary,” he said.

Donaldson said the collection of congressional papers from Clyburn — an influential elected official who also is a veteran of the civil rights movement — is a tremendous plus for the university.

“It is an important foundation for us to build upon. Hopefully, Congressman Clyburn’s collection will inspire others to consider the university as a repository for their papers,” Donaldson said. “His papers will be used by scholars and students, as part of classroom instruction and will lead to innovative programming designed for members of the university and the wider community.”

McNally said he envisions a center where visitors can learn through exhibits and programs and where students and scholars can conduct research using original documents.

“Many young people today don’t know this state’s civil rights story or comprehend the sacrifice and courage of those involved in the movement,” he said. “Our collections contain personal accounts that tell South Carolina’s story in a way that will bring to life this transformational time in our history.”

McNally said the center will start small, initially being housed in the Hollings Library. He hopes that eventually there will be a facility for the center, similar to those in other states around the country.

“We have a dream,” McNally said. “That dream is for a place where people can come and celebrate the courage of those who made this struggle in our state.”

Donaldson said he hopes the South Carolina center becomes a national model for interdisciplinary work in the area of civil rights research, programming and advocacy.

“I hope the university becomes a destination for those seeking to know more about civil rights history in South Carolina and for those interested in connecting events of the past to current struggles for social justice, equal opportunity and human rights,” Donaldson said.

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