USC renovations honor Booker T. Washington High
“We’ll forever be true to Booker Washington.”
The last line of Booker T. Washington High School’s alma mater held new meaning today (June 14) as the University of South Carolina dedicated renovations completed on one of Columbia’s first all-black public schools, which the university acquired after the school’s closing in 1974.
In addition to important upgrades made to the auditorium building, which is located on Wheat St. and constructed in 1956, the renovations feature permanent displays to preserve and share the school’s history as an African-American landmark. A $1.7 million gift from Booker T. Washington alumnus the Rev. Dr. Solomon Jackson Jr. helped make the renovations possible.
“I am proud that this building will preserve the school’s great legacy for generations to come,” said Jackson, a 1971 graduate who grew up in the Wheeler Hill community. “It was a wonderful time and experience at Booker T. Washington. I have many great memories of those good old days that I shall always and forever cherish. I want the world to know about this great school that has provided an excellent education for thousands of students.”
USC President Harris Pastides said the project reflects an important collaboration between the university and the Booker T. Washington Foundation.
“Today, we are celebrating a community of students, teachers and administrators who studied, taught and flourished, against high odds, for six decades. Today is about more than the renovation of Booker T. Washington, it’s about moving its legacy forward. The University is honored to be a part of this remarkable day,” Pastides said.
Pastides and Jackson addressed Booker T. Washington alumni and guests this morning at a program to dedicate the auditorium, which now features seats and stage curtains in the high school’s black and gold colors. They announced that an adjacent multi-purpose classroom will honor Fannie Phelps Adams, a 1934 Booker T. Washington graduate and longtime assistant principal at the school and Wheeler Hill resident.
Adams, 95, said she is honored to have played a role in helping so many students reach their highest potential as a teacher and administrator at Booker T. Washington.
“After God and church there was Booker T. Washington,” Adams said. “It was a special place that was interested in the whole child – the academic, physical and social parts of every student. That was important so that each child could love people and have a clear vision of what he or she wanted to do. We wanted all the children to do the very best they could and go beyond what they thought they could do. It was my responsibility to help them be the best they could be. I want future generations to know that Booker T. Washington was one of the best schools in this nation.”
The auditorium building is the remaining structure of the original 4-acre Booker T. Washington school complex. In addition to changes made in the auditorium so that it can also serve as a lecture venue, a new entrance was built and a front stairwell, elevator and heating and air conditioning system installed. The renovations, additions and exhibits were designed by Columbia architect, The Boudreaux Group. The building currently houses the university’s TRIO programs, which serve low-income and first-generation college students, and the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Theatre and Dance’s lab theater program.
Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, dean of the college, said she is thankful that the renovation and historical preservation came to fruition so that the school can continue its education mission for university students and for others to learn its history.
“From the time I joined the Carolina community, I have been aware of the historical importance of Booker T Washington High School,” Fitzpatrick said. “In 2008-2009, I commissioned an architectural study and a proposal to seek funding from major national private foundations to renovate the BTW auditorium. At the end of 2009, when I had almost given up hope, the Reverend Dr. Jackson appeared and funded the project.”
The building’s exterior also was restored. The light pink paint used on many of the university’s buildings in the 1970s has been stripped away to reveal the original brick that is recognizable to the school’s alumni and residents of Columbia who remember the school.
USC Professor Bobby Donaldson, who guided the public history component of the renovation, said the return to the brick is perhaps the most striking change.
“To alumni the paint signified that it was a university building. Now, the restoration of the brick is a signal that says, ‘It’s our building where we learned and held classes,’” Donaldson said. “The brick and the new addition make it look like the building it was 50 years ago.”
Working with current and first Booker T. Washington Foundation presidents Henry Hopkins and Doris Glymph Greene and foundation members, Donaldson created 15 large text and photo panels that don the halls of the building and display cases to house school and personal memorabilia.
Donaldson said each panel chronicles a different chapter of the school’s history, from the laying of the cornerstone on March 13, 1916 and six decades of educating students and future leaders through the transition of desegregation, which took place in all South Carolina schools in the fall of 1970, and its closing in 1974.
“It was a community institution that had a reputation for academic excellence, athletic achievement, a great music program and a phenomenal arts and trades program. It was the crossroads of the black community, and its graduates were an association of incredible leaders,” Donaldson said.
He said a goal of the foundation and university’s collaboration is that Booker T. Washington become a destination for people to learn the history of Columbia and the school.
“The vision is for it to be a living textbook, a laboratory for younger students to learn about African-American and civil rights history,” he said. “We hope that it will lead more alumni to share oral memories and photos and memorabilia that can be scanned and put on online so that more people will learn about the history of Booker T. Washington High School.”
Visitors will recognize the significance of the school before they arrive at the front door. Mayor Steven Benjamin announced at the dedication that the City of Columbia will add a sign above the Wheat Street sign that reads “Booker T. Washington High School Way.”
The Booker T. Washington Foundation will host an open house, which is free and open to the public, from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 29.
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