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Columbia marks opening of new public park named for Black architect, builder

By Stephen Fastenau

COLUMBIA — The first times Bobby Donaldson heard of the exploits of a Black brick mason who helped shape Columbia physically and politically during the 19th century, the storytellers couldn’t remember the man’s name.

It wouldn’t be until later that Donaldson, a history professor at the University of South Carolina and director of the school’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research, found a Columbian who could identify Page Ellington.

Scouring public records for the name led only to a footnote from meeting minutes in 1912 in which the superintendent of the mental hospital on Bull Street marked Ellington’s death and noted his service as a “useful servant” of the hospital.

Donaldson thought Ellington deserved better, having helped design and build not only multiple buildings on the BullStreet property but also churches and other buildings throughout Columbia. Now Ellington’s contributions will be known in perpetuity as the city renamed its 20-acre public park on the BullStreet property for Ellington.

City officials and representatives from BullStreet development group Hughes Development Corp. marked the new name during a grand opening June 21.

“There is no name on these buildings that commemorates the life of the man who helped to build this campus,” Donaldson told those gathered. “Well today, Mr. Mayor and City Council, we offer a correction. We offer a reconstruction of this history of Columbia.”

Ellington was a self-taught architect and builder who worked on numerous buildings on the property and elsewhere in the city. He was close with Dr. James Babcock, whose name adorns one of Columbia’s iconic buildings that was heavily damaged by fire last year but is being rebuilt into hundreds of apartments.

The former state mental hospital property is undergoing an expansive 20-year private redevelopment. Minor League Baseball’s Columbia Fireflies and their home of Segra Park are there, as is Starbucks and an REI outdoor outfitter, and a sparkling new office tower is under construction.

Construction is beginning on multiple parking garages as part of $100 million the city committed to invest in the redevelopment effort, expected to eventually be a boon to the city’s tax coffers in addition to the benefit of more activity on that side of town, along with the new USC School of Medicine.

Across from the new park is Merrill Gardens, a senior living facility where participants in the park ceremony retreated to a rooftop terrace to celebrate the occasion.

Mayor Steve Benjamin lauded the development’s progress and vision of those who have supported it.

With all the new development has been a recognized need from the city, local historians and developers to acknowledge the deep and at times sordid history of the property, once part of a slave plantation before it became an asylum for the mentally ill. The recognition includes the contributions of some of the area’s Black leaders, from Reconstruction through the civil right era.

One of the streets in the development is already named for Dr. Matilda Evans, one of the first Black women to practice medicine in South Carolina, who treated people at the asylum and was a prominent civic leader. Another is named for educator and civil rights activist Septima Poinsette Clark.

Historic Columbia Executive Director Robin Waites told of the multiple members of the Thompson family, once enslaved on the plantation, who went on to start businesses and participate in local politics.

Now the large public space on BullStreet will bear Ellington’s name, the result of a committee of historians and city officials narrowing down a list of 15 based on each’s merit and individual contribution. It is likely the remaining names will appear in the park and elsewhere on BullStreet.

“These are stories we need to tell along with Page Ellington’s story,” Waites said.

Ellington was born enslaved in North Carolina. He was a member of the Columbia health board in 1875, a City Council candidate and an election manager for his ward. His home still stands in Arsenal Hill.

The park will be owned and managed by the city and includes a fenced dog park and a paved walking trail overlooking a pond with a large oak as a centerpiece. Smith Branch Creek can be seen flowing nearby after developers brought it back to the surface to help manage floodwaters.

The lights of the baseball stadium are within sight across the street, currently dark after a recent Fireflies homestand.

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