Columbia Star

National Park Service funds upgrades to significant landmark in S.C. civil rights history

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 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; installation of fire sprinklers; improved heating, ventilation and air conditioning; and upgrades to lighting and acoustics in the auditorium.

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.

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