For Columbia media consultant Catherine Fleming Bruce, preserving civil rights landmarks is as much about hope as it is about history.
“There are a lot of people who are very demoralized because of the election and the direction they think the country is taking,” she says of last year’s presidential race and the victory of Donald Trump. “So we do need to have reminders that people have gone through a lot and persisted. I think that’s important to what needs to be done today in terms of social change.”
Likewise, she believes people who protect civil rights memorials are following a long tradition of civil engagement.
“I consider them activists,” she says. “[There are] poets and artists and other people, but these preservationists are activists in the same way.”
In her self-published new book, The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good Through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements, Bruce provides a pictorial and textual history of people across the country who have devoted themselves to just this cause.
The book recently won the 2017 Historic Preservation Book Prize from the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Historic Preservation. The City of Columbia also honored Bruce at a July 18 ceremony.
For Bruce, this interest in preservation is personal.
She spent a decade getting the home of Columbia civil rights activist Modjeska Simkins at 2025 Marion St. — headquarters for the S.C. Progressive Network — listed as a historical landmark. The Historic Columbia Foundation now owns the building.
She also purchased, and has long been involved in restoring, the Visanska-Starks site at 2214 Hampton St. The home — purchased in 1913 by Jewish community leader Barrett Visanska, and later sold to Benedict College President John J. Starks — became an early meeting place for the NAACP.
Following her involvement in a 2013 Columbia conference of other civil rights preservers, Bruce became interested in writing a book that would not just tell the story of what made other sites significant, but the process involved in preservation.
“A lot of times, that story’s forgotten,” she explains. “So some of the places I was interested in getting that story I couldn’t find anybody who knew about it.”
In other cases, the stories she discovered surprised her, such as the long struggle it took to make a national landmark of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
For decades, the building decayed into a local eyesore. The pain it represented was too raw. As one preservationist says in the book, it was “as if looking at it would dredge up all the hate and anger and heartbreak that had been focused here back in April 1968.”
“That shows the climate a lot of these folks had to work in,” Bruce notes, “where people either weren’t ready to face that particular past or they didn’t feel like it had priority among the things that needed to be done. These things that we look at now with such appreciation took decades.”
Among other memorials highlighted in the book are the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, Alabama; New York City’s Audubon Ballroom (where Malcolm X was felled by an assassin’s bullet); the Mississippi home of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers; and the Selma to Montgomery National Historical Trail.
While some sites are strictly educational, others are functioning businesses. McCrory’s Five Dine in Rock Hill, the scene of a famous 1961 sit-in where nine young men challenged the color ban, has been fully restored.
Bruce also notes that there are other memorials being erected regularly to honor victims of police shootings, often at the site of those killings. There is also a lynching memorial and racial justice museum under construction in Montgomery.
“All of these different locations should be seen, I think, as an effort not just to memorialize but to increase visibility that an event happened which will propel forward some grassroots social change action,” she says.
Making sure these and other civil rights memorials survive in the years ahead could prove dicey, especially if there are cuts to a variety of arts or National Park Service programs.
“That means that what we do have is really at risk,” Bruce contends, “because all of it needs to be maintained. We need people to understand that it’s not just something that’s cerebral, that people can reflect on.”
Rather, it has a current, ongoing purpose that could be at risk.
“I think that’s going to have to be fought for in the coming years,” she concludes.