brick exterior of Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, South Carolina

Grant advances UofSC’s efforts to create destination for preserving, teaching civil rights history

National Park Service funds rehabilitation of significant SC landmark in movement

The University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research will receive $500,000 in federal funding to further its mission to preserve civil rights history and tell critical stories of the movement.

The African American Civil Rights grant administered by the National Park Service will be used to continue rehabilitation and preservation of the historic Booker T. Washington Auditorium Building.

“I was proud to work with the University of South Carolina to help them receive a third phase of funding from the National Park Service for renovations of Booker T. Washington High School,” said Congressman James E. Clyburn. “This school was an integral part of the African American story in South Carolina and fostered some of the greatest minds of the civil rights movement. The continuation of this funding brings us one step closer to fully restoring this historic site for future generations to learn the important role that South Carolina played in the struggle for equality.”

Built in 1956 and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018, the auditorium is the only remaining structure of the original four-acre Booker T. Washington High School complex. One of the first public high schools for African American students in Columbia, Booker T. Washington has a powerful history as a significant landmark in South Carolina’s civil rights history. Civil rights leaders J. Andrew Simmons, Septima Clark and Modjeska Simkins taught at the school in the 1920s and 1930s, and NAACP attorneys Matthew Perry and Lincoln Jenkins attended as students, along with many others who became leaders in the city and state.

“We are excited to have federal support for the critical work of the center, which preserves and shares the stories of South Carolina’s role in the struggle for civil rights,” Interim President Harris Pastides said. “This news comes at a key juncture, building on the momentum of private support to ensure the center can fulfill its mission.”

The grant will fund phase three of a multiphase project to fully rehabilitate the auditorium building. Planned work includes renovations to create a meeting and multipurpose performance space. The improvements will support engagements with the community and beckon graduates and the public back to Booker T. Washington High School. Mechanical HVAC and lighting systems will be upgraded for the community space, and original 1950s public restroom facilities will be renovated to comply with accessibility standards.

The Booker T. Washington High School Auditorium Building was acquired by the University of South Carolina after the high school closed in the 1970s. Renovations and historical preservation in 2013 made important physical upgrades to the building on Wheat Street and created space to highlight the school’s six-decade history from 1916 to 1974.

“In 2013, we shared a powerful moment celebrating the initial phase of the restoration of the Booker T. Washington High School’s historic auditorium. With former students and teachers in the audience, we made a commitment to preserve the last building of a vaunted community institution,” said Bobby Donaldson, professor of history and director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research.

A $1.8 million gift at that time from the Rev. Solomon Jackson, known for his philanthropy in South Carolina and to higher education, laid a strong foundation on which the center continues to build.

“The National Park Service's support enables the university to make vital improvements to the auditorium and to strengthen collaborations with neighborhoods and community organizations,” Donaldson said. “Our partnerships have been fruitful, and we continue to work on exciting new projects that will strengthen the center's work and widen the National Park Service's footprint across South Carolina and the nation.”

Continuing preservation efforts advance UofSC’s commitment to documenting and interpreting the history of the civil rights movement in South Carolina and the nation and will help strengthen partnerships between the university and the Booker T. Washington High School Foundation and the Ward One and Wheeler Hill neighborhood organizations.

The new funding will build on rehabilitation work supported by two previous park service grants. It is one of 44 projects across 15 states that will receive 2022 grants totaling more than $16.2 million. Of that total, more than $2.2 million was awarded to six projects in South Carolina to help preserve the sites and history related to the African American struggle for equality.

Combined with a $1.5 million gift from Williams, an energy infrastructure company, announced earlier this year, the grant will help broaden the Center for Civil Rights History and Research’s reach and resources to share South Carolina’s important role in the broader national movement. In part, the Williams gift supports the traveling "Justice for All" exhibit throughout South Carolina.

“Through research, training and public engagement, the center is deeply committed to preserving important sites in the South Carolina struggle for equality and justice,” Donaldson said.

The university founded the Center for Civil Rights History and Research in November 2015 as the first organization dedicated to chronicling South Carolina’s civil rights story. The cornerstone of its collections is the congressional papers of Clyburn, the state’s first African American congressman since 1897.

The center’s mission is trifold: Engaging the community in programming to foster advocacy and action; informing curriculum for K-12 and higher education; and serving students, educators, researchers and the community in identifying and using university collections and resources.

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