COLUMBIA — During the 1950s, Black Columbia residents could visit three blocks of Washington Street and walk into businesses where the owners looked like them. Sarah Mae Flemming took her seat at the front of a Whites-only section of a city bus more than a year before Rosa Parks did the same. And civil rights leaders were working to advance a national movement locally.
The stories of the city’s Black history have been told through four recently completed works of art adorning public buildings and facilities, a mural in each of the city’s four council districts. Local artists were commissioned with $50,000 from Columbia’s Parks and Recreation Foundation, a city-created nonprofit, for the project supported by elected leaders and the arts community.
“It’s done what we’d hoped it would do in terms of bringing people together, really telling these stories about the civil rights era in Columbia and some of the stories behind it,” said Lee Snelgrove, a parks foundation board member and director of the nonprofit arts organization One Columbia.
On 1401 Main St., artist Ija Charles filled a large wall with a scene of the city’s Black business district on Washington Street, pulled from a photograph from the period unearthed by a group called Columbia SC 63 that marked the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement. Businesses included a bank, a tea shop, an inn and barbershop.
“There’s so many ways this mural helps to chronicle a missing, a deleted, a demolished chapter in our history,” civil rights historian and University of South Carolina professor Bobby Donaldson said at the May 20 ceremony to unveil the work.
At Valencia Park, visitors now see the first Black schoolchildren entering Rosewood Elementary School during integration in 1964, painted by McClellan Douglas. In Woodland Park, married couple Andrew and Sarah McWilson lived on-site in their van while painting Flemming, a city bus and a quote attributed to Flemming from a news story: “It was the right thing to do.”
Flemming was born near Eastover outside Columbia, the oldest of seven children whose father was a highway laborer during the Great Depression. She was 20 years old in June 1954 when she sat in the front of a segregated bus operated by South Carolina Electric and Gas and was admonished by the driver.
She later sued SCE&G, a case she ultimately won in a federal appeals court ruling that was largely ignored but laid the groundwork for the legal challenge related to Parks’ more publicized effort and the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Ala., that ultimately ended segregated buses.
Woodland Park was chosen for her mural because Flemming, a maid, worked for a family on nearby Garners Ferry Road and often traveled the thoroughfare, Donaldson said.
Henry Simons, the assistant city manager, noted his close connection to Flemming’s family and told stories of his family visiting her brother’s auto shop.
“It brings African American education to the doorsteps of our communities,” Simons said. “Some young people may not have an interest in a museum, or they may not have interest in an art gallery, but they will spend time at our recreational facilities.”
On the community center building at Hyatt Park, a team of artists with the New Freedom Project left portraits of educator and activist Septima Pointsette Clark, community organizer Benjamin Mack and television journalist Listervelt Middleton, who chronicled the civil rights movement in Columbia.
Dedication ceremonies have already been held for the Main Street mural and Woodland Park. The Valencia Park mural will be recognized during an event May 27 and the Hyatt Park ceremony will be June 3.
The public settings of the artists’ canvases led to regular interactions with city visitors and community residents who were curious about the work and its story, Snelgrove said. In Woodland Park off of Garners Ferry Road, some of the same visitors stopped by almost daily to witness the McWilsons’ progress.
The McWilsons said sometimes they have to dig for meaning to inspire their work, but Flemming’s story made this project easy.
“The process here was effortless in that respect,” McWilson said at the painting’s dedication May 20. “Because the story was here, the meaning was here, the support for Sarah Mae Flemming’s story was here and the need was here. We just had to show up and paint it, to bring life to that story on the wall.”