- Margaret D.
- Monday, February 21, 2022
Discover places in downtown Columbia that once held signs of segregation through these "then and now" images constructed from historic photographs in our archives.
If you grew up in Columbia in the 1950s and 1960s, then you experienced first-hand the rules of Jim Crow, when businesses, schools, public transportation, places of entertainment, and even state parks were racially segregated BY LAW. But if you grew up after that time, it’s hard to believe how pervasive segregation was in Columbia.
Younger residents today, who are 1, 2, or even 3 generations removed from those days of segregation have a hard time comprehending what it was like here before civil rights activists saw the removal of those laws. For those of us seeking to understand, there are oral histories, books, and newspaper articles that shed light on the topic. But, driving around town, there are also remnants and physical evidence of the segregation that was once institutionalized in Columbia. Before I was a librarian, I was an archaeologist, which brought me an appreciation for the power of a physical object or a place on the ground where we can be reminded of our shared history. I feel that being able to touch, walk past, or feel the remnants of the past can help us connect to it, learn from it, and realize that, yes, this happened right here, in this place.
Below are places in downtown Columbia that once held signs of segregation that we can still see traces of today. Either literal signs marking an entrance for non-white visitors, or a constructed separate space for business interactions designed to keep the races apart.
Kress Lunch Counter, 1217 Hampton Street
Built in 1934, the Kress Five and Dime on Main Street wrapped around the Sylvan Building to a second entrance, which was a 1953 addition, to the Kress lunch counter on Hampton Street. Though Black customers were allowed to shop in the Kress dime store, the Kress lunch counter was whites-only. Images from our archive show civil rights activists leaving the Kress lunch counter after staging a sit in. These efforts eventually forced the integration of all lunch counters in the city by 1963. But for a decade it was understood that the Kress sign above the lunch counter door did not offer a welcome for all.
Seaboard Passenger Depot, 1200 Lincoln Street
The Seaboard Air Line Passenger Depot, built in 1904, saw the comings and goings of the city’s rail passengers for decades. Adjacent to the ticket station and passenger waiting room is a second entrance, which, evidenced by a photograph in our archive, served as a waiting room for Black passengers. Today the old depot houses the Blue Marlin restaurant and the formerly separate doorway is still a visible entrance.
Greyhound Bus Station, 1200 Blanding Street
The Greyhound Bus Depot was a model of the Art Moderne architectural style when it was completed in 1939. With aluminum, stainless steel, and glass details, the bus station evokes a modern, aerodynamic feel. But the waiting room was for whites-only. In a somewhat blurry image in our photograph archives a sign is visible above a side door which reads “Colored Waiting Room” indicating the entrance to a segregated space for Black passengers. The photograph was taken on March 3, 1960, when Black activists entered from the front and sat in the all-white waiting room in protest. The waiting room and station were integrated in 1963. Today, the building stands vacant.
Carver Theatre, 1519 Harden Street
Along with signs that designated a legally segregated space, there are also signs that represented a welcoming space for Black residents. One of those spaces was the Carver Theatre, one of two Black-owned movie theaters that served African Americans during Jim Crow. The Carver was built in 1941 and sits along a commercial block of Harden Street that included the adjacent Royal Motel, built in 1963 and a meeting place for the SC NAACP, and Harden Street Lunch, popular among students attending neighboring Allen University and Benedict College.
If you’d like to explore or learn more about the civil rights movement in Columbia, try some of the books and oral histories linked below.
Oral History with Noble Cooper, Sr. and Noble Cooper, Jr.
Oral History with Modjeska Simkins
Oral History with Ethel Bolden
Books and DVDs:
Civil Rights in South Carolina: From Peaceful Protest to Groundbreaking Rulings, by James L. Felder (2012)
Stories of Struggle: The Clash over Civil Rights in South Carolina, by Claudia Smith Brinson (2020)
Before Rosa: The Unsung Contribution of Sara Mae Flemming (DVD, 2005)
Black America Series: Columbia, South Carolina, by Vennie Deas-Moore (2000)