Murals of civil rights icons, Black businesses coming soon to Columbia city buildings

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Chris Trainor
·3 min read
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The City of Columbia is set to launch a public art project that will bring history specifically African American history to life in a bold, vibrant way.

At a Tuesday City Council meeting, officials announced an upcoming initiative in which artists are being commissioned to paint murals on exterior walls at four city-owned facilities. The city’s nonprofit parks foundation is funding the work at a total cost of $50,000.

The mural project has been in the works for about six months, according to Assistant City Manager Henry Simons.

“Our focus and theme for this project was to create artistic murals that depict African American history, heritage and culture,” Simons said. “The desire was to find specific locations within each Councilperson’s district for this work to be accomplished. Several locations were identified, and we narrowed those locations down to four city-owned facilities.”

A committee of people has ushered the project along, one that included Bobby Donaldson, who heads the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina, and Lee Snelgrove, the executive director at One Columbia for Arts and Culture and a member of the city parks foundation.

One of the murals will be on the north wall of the city’s office building at 1401 Main St. While that building is now a gleaming office tower, that corner of Main and Washington, years ago, was part of a thriving Black business district. The mural will depict African American businesses that were in that area.

Another of the murals will be on a wall in Hyatt Park, in North Columbia. That painting will depict several prominent Black citizens, including educator Septima Poinsette Clark, civil rights activist Benjamin Mack, and journalist and public TV personality Listervelt Middleton.

The third mural would be in Woodland Park, off Garners Ferry Road. That one would offer a depiction of Sarah Mae Flemming. She was an African American Eastover resident who, in June 1954, took a seat in a “whites only” section of a segregated city bus. She was attacked by the bus driver and eventually filed a lawsuit against the owners of the bus company. The Flemming incident happened more than a year ahead of the much more heralded Rosa Parks bus incident in Alabama.

And the fourth mural will be in Valencia Park in Rosewood. It will depict young African American students integrating schools in Columbia in the 1960s.

Aside from the paintings themselves, there will also be informational markers placed at each site to give information and context about each piece of art. Snelgrove told The State that work is expected to begin on the murals in coming weeks. Officials said most of the creators who will work on the projects are local artists.

“This is an extraordinary day for us as we think about ongoing ways to celebrate and to chronicle some vibrant history in the city of Columbia and how we can use structures within city properties as a classroom and a visual textbook about the history of largely unknown moments and unknown individuals in our community,” Donaldson said at the Tuesday meeting.

Simons is excited about the project.

“We are enthusiastic about the product that’s been proposed,” Simons said. “We are looking forward to these renderings that will go up on city facilities. The mayor and council are fully endorsing the process, and it could bring some national attention to the city of Columbia because of the scale of the work.”