National Park Service funds upgrades to Booker T. Washington Auditorium

UofSC advances efforts to create a destination for people to learn the state’s history in the movement

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(Columbia, SC) – The University of South Carolina will continue rehabilitation and preservation of the historic Booker T. Washington Auditorium Building with a $500,000 grant from the National Park Service.

Built in 1956 and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018, the auditorium is the only surviving building of the historic Booker T. Washington High School. One of Columbia’s first public high schools for African American students, 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 other individuals who became important members of the African American community in Columbia.

“The continued support of the National Park Service fortifies our efforts to preserve, document and reconstruct the extraordinary histories of the Booker T. Washington High School and the surrounding African American neighborhoods that were uprooted and displaced in the wake of urban renewal and university expansion,” said Bobby Donaldson, professor of history and director of UofSC’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research.

The grant will fund phase two of a multiphase project to fully rehabilitate the auditorium building, the only remaining structure of the original four-acre school complex. Planned work includes improvements to the Fannie Phelps Adams Room to serve as a venue for programs and community meetings; additional renovations to promote the history of the Booker T. Washington High School within the context of civil rights in Columbia, South Carolina; installation of fire sprinklers; improved heating, ventilation and air conditioning; and upgrades to lighting and acoustics in the auditorium.

“The Booker T. Washington Auditorium Building, with its proud history and its ties to so many of our state’s leaders, is a treasured landmark on our university campus. We are thrilled that this grant will continue the work to fully restore this cherished space to serve as the home of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research and carry on its rich legacy,” Interim President Harris Pastides said. “Our thanks go out to Congressman Clyburn and the National Park Service for their dedicated support of this project.”

A 2020 NPS grant is being used primarily for restoration of the historic windows, foundation repairs and installation of a permanent home for the civil rights center’s popular exhibit, “Justice for All: South Carolina and the American Civil Rights Movement.” The popular exhibit shines a spotlight on turning points in South Carolina’s civil rights history that influenced nationwide change and showcased historic items from more than 60 university library collections.

The Booker T. Washington High School Auditorium Building was acquired by the University of South Carolina after the school closed in the 1970s. Renovations and historical preservation in 2013 not only made important physical upgrades to the building on Wheat Street but also created a space for permanent displays to highlight the school’s six-decade history — 1916 to 1974 — of educating students and future leaders.

The ongoing rehabilitation, which will advance efforts to create a destination for people to learn the history of the school, is supported by an African American Civil Rights grant from the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, Department of Interior. It is one of 53 projects across 20 states that will receive 2021 grants totaling more than $15 million. Of that total, nearly $3 million was awarded to seven projects in South Carolina to help preserve the sites and history related to the African American struggle for equality.

“I was pleased to support the National Park Service’s grant award for phase two of the Booker T. Washington renovation,” said S.C. Congressman James E. Clyburn. “This school played such an important role in Columbia’s African American community prior to the university acquiring the property. As the only remaining high school structure, it is fitting to rehabilitate the auditorium building, preserve its history and restore its place as a vital touchstone for future generations to learn about the struggle for civil rights in South Carolina and beyond.”

Clyburn, a strong supporter of UofSC’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research, donated his congressional papers to the center when it was launched in 2015 as a collaboration of University Libraries and the College of Arts and Sciences.

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. As part of a course on historic site interpretation, graduate students are working this fall on projects to interpret the history of the school and surrounding neighborhoods to support the goals of the grant.

“I believe our university has both a scholarly and moral obligation to document and preserve the school and its history. The civil rights center looks forward to partnering with community residents and Booker T. Washington graduates in illuminating the school’s place in history and making the auditorium building once again a vital and vibrant institution in Columbia,” Donaldson said.

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