Take a stroll downtown to connect with Greenville's civil rights struggle

civil rights historic

Those born after the baby boom generation may not realize the significance of the old Woolworth building that's slowly being demolished at the corner of Washington and North Main streets. But Ruth Ann Butler assures there is history in the growing pile of rubble.

Flashback to 1960. Greenville's Main Street was a vibrant but segregated avenue of local businesses and restaurants. In March of that year a group of Sterling High students sat down at the lunch counter inside Woolworth's five-and-dime and changed the course of Upstate history.

Greenville's civil rights history is a long and arduous walk down memory lane for people like Butler, who lived it. But the sites that harbored the local movement, and in some cases fostered it, aren't a far walk at all.

A wealth of civil rights history sits within a short walk of downtown. Some of the sites are documented, but many remain unmarked, never getting a second glance from passersby.

"Because of these places, the things that took place and because of challenges we went through and were able to overcome, today people are enjoying the facilities," says Butler, now director of the Greenville Cultural Exchange Center, a local black history museum.

"I sometimes wonder if we had not challenged the system and left the system as it was, what would it be like today," Butler says. "There were people who made sacrifices in order for us to enjoy the freedom we have today."

Richland Cemetery

Prior to 1884, blacks in Greenville were given a small part of Springwood Cemetery to bury their dead. The corner that sits near Academy Street soon became too small, so African Americans appealed to the city for a burial place. The result was Richland Cemetery, located between Stone Avenue and Church Street, the city's first municipal cemetery for blacks.

Richland is the final resting place of several influential black leaders, notes Butler, including William Sewell, who constructed Sterling High School and was Greenville's first black licensed building contractor; Hattie Logan Duckett, who founded the Phillis Wheatley Center; and Cora Chapman, who was among Greenville's first black nurses.

More about Richland's fascinating history can be found at National Register Sites in South Carolina

Woolworth's lunch counter

The Woolworth building may soon be gone, but the memory of what happened there remains. In the wake of the arrest of eight students at a sit-in to integrate the Greenville Public Library, students set upon the downtown lunch counters at Woolworth's and S.H. Kress, staging similar demonstrations.

The sit-in at the library had involved students from the all-black Sterling High School, including Greenville native and civil-rights-leader-in-the-making the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

It's remarkable still that young people played such a vital role in breaking down the barriers, says Dr. Judith Bainbridge, Furman University professor and Greenville historian.

"The people who integrated Woolworth were high school kids," Bainbridge says. "They're the only ones who had the guts, and they couldn't lose their jobs."

It took perseverance, arrests and almost three years, but finally the counters were opened to both blacks and whites, and the combined actions set in motion the integration of Greenville's public buildings.

"We couldn't sit on the stools, we couldn't go in the library, we couldn't go in any of the public places, we couldn't try on clothes," Butler recalls of Greenville's segregated past. "When we were in line to purchase something, we were the last ones waited on.

"We were the generation that asked the question 'Why?'" she says. "We just felt like we had to, there was so much injustice."

Sterling Square

On the corner outside the site of the lunch-counter sit-ins, a bronze statue recognizes the brave souls who challenged the social mores of the time. Constructed in 2006, the memorial, which has been temporarily removed for the Woolworth demolition, shows a young man and woman walking down the steps of Sterling High.

Sterling was South Carolina's first public black high school, founded in 1896 by the Rev. Daniel Melton Minus, says Bainbridge. Its students were the leaders of the movement in Greenville.

"The biggest thing we had was Sterling High School," says Greenville County Councilwoman Xanthene Norris, who taught at Sterling before it burned in 1967. "What we tried to do was make them realize the legacy of blacks in Greenville, and we talked about that."

In that era, graduate programs at the University of South Carolina were not open to blacks, says Bainbridge, so the state offered black teachers a chance to get advanced degrees through Columbia University in New York. The exposure to new ideas and new social norms laid a path for new ideas back home in Greenville.

"It's these people, men and women who pushed and shoved and made themselves most unpopular, they are the ones who created that movement, with the help of the kids," Bainbridge says of the Sterling High teachers and administrators. "And those students at Sterling High School, they really did it, but my guess is it's because it was because of the teachers and the principal who encouraged them. ..."

Old Phillis Wheatley Center

The original site for the Phillis Wheatley Center was on East McBee Avenue, but the center was moved in 1924 to East Broad Street. The Phillis Wheatley Association, founded in 1919 by Hattie Logan Duckett, was originally established to provide social services to African-American girls but soon became a place, says Butler, "for the needs of the black community."

Because blacks could not use the white library, Duckett, working with Greenville Public Library founder Thomas Parker, established a library room for blacks within the Phillis Wheatley Center.

Phillis Wheatley capped off the Working Benevolent Temple and Professional Building complex, located on the corner of East Broad and Falls streets where Erwin-Penland is today. It was known as the center of the African-American community in Greenville from the 1920s through the '60s. Norris recalls that the complex held the only black pharmacist, black doctors' offices, a black dentist, a barber and a black movie theater.

"As you sit back and remember and think about this, you wonder, why did it have to occur that way? Why disenfranchise people from having the property they had worked so hard for?" says Norris, who remembers frequenting the black library as a child. "But it was during the time of segregation, when people didn't realize we were citizens and that we had the right to have places we wanted too."

Springfield Baptist Church

The site of many of the first civil rights actions, Springfield Baptist Church (located near where it is today on McBee Avenue), was central to the civil rights movement in Greenville. Compared to other parts of the state, says Bainbridge, the Upcountry had a smaller African-American population. Instead of one concentrated black community, she says, there were eight or nine smaller black neighborhoods, all flanking white neighborhoods. This separation made central meeting places like churches and community centers even more important to unifying the community.

Perhaps the thing that spurred the official start of civil rights in Greenville was a visit by Jackie Robinson in 1959. The famed African-American baseball player came to town to speak at the state meeting of the NAACP. While waiting for his return flight out of the Greenville downtown airport he was denied access to the all-white waiting room. The snub reverberated throughout the community, leading to an NAACP-sponsored march in response.

The 250-person protest held Jan. 1, 1960, began at Springfield Baptist Church and ended at the airport.

"Sometimes I think it takes something so bad to trigger the response," says Bainbridge. "It took the insult to Jackie Robinson to trigger the march, which triggered the civil rights movement directly here."

Court Square

Perhaps one of the most important memorials to Greenville's civil rights past is the old Court Square in the heart of downtown, says Bainbridge. The site where East and West Court streets and South Main converge once held the County Court House. Family court was housed there for many years and it's now Design Strategies. In 1947, the square was the site of the Willie Earle lynching trial, which Bainbridge says effectively unleashed the great unrest of the black community.

Willie Earle was a 24-year-old black man who had been accused of killing a white taxi driver. Earle's guilt has never been proven, says Bainbridge, because he was lynched by a mob of white men before he could be tried.

At the lynching trial, which was covered by The New Yorker and Time magazine, the 29 defendants admitted guilt but were acquitted by an all-white jury. The verdict sparked outrage and "triggered a response in the black community," says Bainbridge.

Shortly after, a biracial committee was formed to assess the conditions in Greenville for black people. The result was "Greenville's Big Idea," a report that showed without a doubt the disparity between the races. It set the stage for outrage and change, says Bainbridge.

Norris, along with Butler, is developing a plan to erect a historic marker on Bramlett Road where the lynching occurred.

"One of my greatest concerns is to record the historical legacy of blacks in Greenville," Norris says. "Markers, if nothing else, help us to remember."

Lillia Callum-Penso