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Commemorating South Carolina's Civil Rights History

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Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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The struggle for civil rights in South Carolina, as in most Southern states, was not easy: Jim Crow, segregated schools, restaurants and drinking fountains, voting rights violations.

Located on the historic site of Gadsden's Wharf, where thousands of enslaved Africans arrived in the United States, the International African American Museum showcases an impressive collection of historical artifacts, works of art, thought-provoking films and an engaging interactive digital encounter. The American Journeys Gallery chronicles key moments, figures and movements in African American history, including the continued struggle for freedom and equality.  

Sites across the state commemorate the struggles of the brave men and women who refused to back down in the face of inequality. Here is a sampling of historically significant places on the road to equality and a bit of what you will find there.


Columbia '63: Our Story Matters

Downtown Columbia was home to noteworthy moments in the American civil rights movement, which reached its height in 1963. To mark the 50th anniversary in 2013, the Columbia '63: Our Story Matters project helped tell the city's civil rights story.

Don't miss:  A Main Street walking tour teaches visitors about important people and places involved in the struggle for civil rights.

What's there: Nine markers telling the story of student activism, protests, marches, demonstrations and racial reconciliation.

Of note: As part of the commemoration, the intersection of Main and Washington streets downtown was renamed Sarah Mae Flemming Way. In 1954, when 20-year-old Flemming attempted to exit a city bus from the front instead of the back, the driver struck and ejected her at Main and Washington streets. A lawsuit filed on her behalf by the NAACP ended with the appeals courts ruling that the Brown school desegregation mandate applied to public transportation. The Flemming case was cited in the lawsuit that brought an end to the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, made famous by Rosa Parks

The Orangeburg Massacre

On Feb. 8, 1968, after three nights of racial tension when South Carolina State College students and others attempted to desegregate the all-white All Star Bowling Lanes in Orangeburg, three students were killed and 27 wounded on campus when South Carolina Highway Patrolmen fired on a crowd. Two years before the Kent State shootings during a protest of the Vietnam War, the Orangeburg Massacre was the first of its kind on an American college campus.

What's there: A monument was erected by South Carolina State University in 2000. South Carolina State is at 300 College St. in Orangeburg.

Also: South Carolina State was founded in 1896 as the state's sole public college for black youth and has played a key role in the education of African-Americans in the state and nation.


Penn Center, St. Helena Island, Beaufort

The Penn Center is the site of the former Penn School, one of the country's first schools for freed slaves.

The Penn Center is the site of the former Penn School, one of the country's first schools for freed slaves. It is on St. Helena Island near Beaufort in the heart of Gullah country, and its 50-acre historic campus was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1974. It is the only African-American Landmark District in the country.

What's there: The York W. Bailey Museum features permanent and temporary exhibits. Tours, lectures and public programs also are offered. The Penn Center Conference Center features four restored residential facilities that can accommodate up to 86 guests.

Don't miss: The Penn Center was a training site for retreats and strategic planning for Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1964-67.


Sterling High School statue, Main Street, Greenville

In 2006, nearly 40 years after Greenville's first all-black high school burned, a statue depicting Sterling High School students was unveiled on Main Street. The statue, at Main and Washington streets, sits in front of a building that once housed a Woolworth's. Sterling students held sit-ins at the store when they were refused service at its lunch counter.

What's there: The bronze statue depicts two life-size figures of students walking down steps that represent Sterling High School. The corner of West Washington and North Main streets has been named Sterling Square.

Also: Many prominent South Carolinians attended Sterling High, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a native of Greenville.


University of South Carolina Desegregation Commemorative Garden, Columbia

In September 1963, three African-American students walked into the University of South Carolina's Osborne Administration Building, becoming the first black students at the state's flagship university since Reconstruction. Fifty years later, the university welcomed them back to campus and dedicated a garden next to the building in their honor.

What's there: The Desegregation Commemorative Garden features topiaries, flower beds and brick pathways. Internationally known South Carolina topiary artist Pearl Fryar, famous for the living sculptures he has created at his Bishopville home, sculpted the junipers at the garden.

Don't miss: The granite monument in the garden is etched with an original poem, "The Irresistible Ones," written by university poet Nikky Finney.


Emanuel AME Church, Charleston

Emanuel AME Church in Charleston sidewalk
Emanuel AME Church was the scene of many important gatherings during the struggle for civil rights in South Carolina.

The church in downtown Charleston that has become widely known as the site of the tragic mass shooting in June 2015 has long been a symbol of black history and the civil rights struggle. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke atEmanuel AME in 1962. His words inspired the city's black community to boycott segregated facilities, protest low wages and the lack of employment opportunities in the summer of 1963. Their peaceful protest became know as the Charleston Movement, with its leaders creating a list of businesses that refused to serve or hire African-Americans. More than 1,000 blacks went to jail during the Charleston movement, but stores eventually opened their doors to African-Americans. After her husband's death, Coretta Scott King led a march for workers' rights in the city of Charleston.

What's there: Emanuel AME, at 110 Calhoun St. in Charleston, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. The front of the building also has become somewhat of a shrine to the nine people who were murdered in the church in 2015, with people leaving flowers and signing memorials in front of the church. Nearby, a marker on King Street between Wentworth and Society streets identifies the Kress building, one of three stores on King Street where lunch counter sit-ins were held on April 1, 1960. Black students from Burke High School were denied service and refused to leave. They were arrested for trespassing, convicted and fined. It was seen as the beginning of the broader civil rights movement in Charleston.


Friendship Nine, Rock Hill

A group of African-American men went to jail after staging a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Rock Hill in 1961. The men, students at Rock Hill's Friendship Junior College, took their seats at the counter at McCrory's on Main Street, were refused service and ordered to leave. When they didn't, they were arrested. The next day, 10 were convicted of trespassing and breach of peace and sentenced to a $100 fine or 30 days in jail. One paid the fine; the other nine chose the jail time and were sentenced to hard labor. They were the first sit-in protesters in the US to serve jail time, and it was the first time the strategy called "Jail, No Bail" was used in the civil rights movement. Through this strategy, civil rights groups did not have to spend money to bail out protesters. It was adopted as the model strategy for the Freedom Rides of 1961.

What's there: A marker sits on Main Street near Hampton Street in Rock Hill, at the site of the old McCrory's Five & Dime, which was open from 1937 to 1997.

Also: The Friendship Nine had their convictions overturned in 2015. They were represented in court by Ernest A. Finney Jr., the same man who defended their case in 1961. Finney became the first black chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court since Reconstruction.

Page Ivey
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.