As excitement builds around the opening of the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, community preservationists closer to home are launching an initiative to expand the marketing of Black history-related sites in Richland County.
Members of the Richland County Conservation Commission (RCCC), who are appointed by Richland County Council, met in December with historic preservationists and others to form a task force scheduled to begin work this month. Glenice Pearson, vice chair of the RCCC and chair of its Historic Committee, approached her fellow historians about the need for a plan to bring more attention to local Black history and provide economic opportunities tied to tourism.
“Richland County has a rich and diverse history, but some aspects get overlooked,” Pearson said. “It’s important for residents and visitors to know that Richland County is notable for being the center of the state’s Reconstruction history, significant civil rights events and other key moments tied to the Black experience in South Carolina.”
While enthusiasm about the IAAM mounts, Richland County’s Black history has garnered its own share of national and international buzz the past few years.
In October 2020, Alexandria Russell, a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University and Columbia native, was the featured speaker for a virtual event hosted by Uncomfortable Oxford, a public history organization based in England.
Russell’s presentation, “Commemorating Freedom: African American Women’s Public History in the Jim Crow Era,” referenced Celia Dial Saxon, a formerly enslaved Black woman from Columbia. Saxon was one of the first African American students to attend the University of South Carolina and became one of the state’s leading educators.
Additionally, Russell’s dissertation, “Seen & Unseen: Mapping African American Women’s Public Memorialization,” found that Richland County has more public memorials honoring Black women than any other county in the United States. To date, the County claims 17 monuments to Black women — nine historical markers, three historic sites and at least five street names. (Many of the monuments have been funded by the RCCC.)
And Catherine Fleming Bruce, the Columbia-based director of Tnovsa Global Commons and the first Black author to win the University of Mary Washington Historic Preservation Book Prize in 2017 for “The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements,” spoke in 2021 at several preservation conferences around the country.
Following these presentations, Bruce authored an article featured in a recent edition of the magazine C20, published by C20 Society/Twentieth Century Society in the United Kingdom. Catherine Croft, the organization’s director, met Bruce at a Colorado-based conference and suggested she write an article for the magazine. While C20 works primarily to save and preserve buildings that have shaped the British landscape, it also spotlights preservation efforts around the world.
Bruce’s article, “A Lion Tells Her Own Story,” highlights preservation work by Black South Carolinians at sites such as the Harriet Barber House, the Modjeska Simkins House and the Dr. Cyril O. Spann Medical Office, all in Richland County.
Members of the RCCC task force say the national and global recognition accompanying the opening of IAAM point to the need to do more to market Richland County’s Black history.
“The interest is already there,” Bruce said. “We just need to develop a comprehensive plan to capitalize on that interest even more, and that’s what the task force will work on.”
To help raise community awareness about local historic sites, the 2022 Richland County calendar features projects that have received funding from the RCCC. Several of the projects are tied specifically to African American history.
A limited supply of the calendars will be available for free at Richland Library locations. The calendar also can be downloaded at www.richlandcountysc.gov.