Five years ago, as Bobby Donaldson dug through the box of photographs, a story that he could once only tell in words turned into images of people and the places they lived. The pictures were taken by David Wallace who as Donaldson says “quietly took photographs” of 1960s Columbia, capturing moments during the fight for civil rights.
“There were some phenomenal images of downtown Columbia,” Donaldson recalls. “Those images were never found before.”
When he went to Orangeburg and dug into the photographs of Cecil Williams, the mid-century equality movement melded the sentences he could write for academic journals into scenes he could put on placards along Main Street for daily workers and tired students to see. But it was when Donaldson delved into the archives of The State that the story became whole.
“We knew of events and knew of demonstrations but we did not have images to tell these stories. So the day we found these images was a high point,” he says. “These photographs are a reminder that part of our task is to resurrect buried or largely forgotten histories.”
Now the University of South Carolina professor has won the 2017 Stephen G. Morrison Visionary Award. The award, given out by One Columbia for Arts and History, recognizes a Columbian for their vision and leadership in the arts, history and culture and the value those efforts bring to South Carolina’s capital.
Maybe you recently saw Donaldson speak at the unveiling of two historical markers on Main and Taylor streets that honor civil rights protests by students from Allen University and Benedict College. Or maybe you listened to Donaldson give his opinions on the removal of Confederate monuments at a University of South Carolina forum beside a couple of pro-Confederate fellows.
Whether you know him or not, Donaldson has become one of the foremost teachers of Columbia’s civil rights history.
He began his career in 1999 at USC and heads the school’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research housed in the Hollings Special Collection Library. He serves as lead scholar for Columbia SC 63: Our Story Matters — the initiative that placed markers along Main Street that detail the city’s civil rights history. The images he found in an Orangeburg home and their hiding places around Columbia provided the visual component of that effort along one of Columbia’s most historically important veins.
The assortment of people and places where he found the photographs underscores an element of the historical research that went into Donaldson winning the Morrison award — the work was not done alone.
“As a history professor at USC and as the lead scholar for Columbia SC 63, countless students, colleagues and community members have joined me in uncovering, documenting and promoting our city’s rich and diverse histories,” he says. “It is enormously gratifying and indeed inspiring to sit down, record, and listen to memories and enduring lessons of the past. I am proud of our efforts to bring greater voice and visibility to often overlooked and unrecognized chapters in our collective history.”
The collaborative effort he led was a significant contributor to One Columbia’s recognition.
“His work has ensured that Columbia will not forget the role its citizens played in the struggle for civil rights and social justice so that current and future generations may appreciate and honor those contributions, but may also understand the work that remains to be done as we continue to march toward those honorable goals,” posits Jeremy Hodges, president of the One Columbia for Arts and History Board of Directors.
The Columbia SC 63 project has done more than unearth the narratives of the Civil Right Movement in Columbia. Donaldson worked with others to document historically African-American neighborhoods and preserve the past of Booker T. Washington High School as well as Randolph Cemetery, a black burial ground near Elmwood Cemetery.
“Those stories show there’s more historic communities and events that merit further attention,” Donaldson says.
While he’s now being recognized for wiping the dust off untold moments from years ago, Donaldson is contemplating how contemporary narratives will one day depict the stories of the past.
“This moment in time we see a dramatic transformation of the downtown landscape,” Donaldson says. “I’m sure future historians will document what was going on in the mid 2000s to 2020, when you see a dramatic change of downtowns to urban centers, and what led to the Main Street revitalization. If people ask what led to the revitalization of certain areas of downtown Columbia that bear little resememblance to what they were a decade ago, like the Vista, or University Innovista, and Arsenal Hill, we need to take into consideration the rich history of these areas from the decades before.”
What:Morrison Award Presentation to Bobby Donaldson
Where:Booker T. Washington Auditorium, 1400 Wheat St.
When:Friday, Nov. 17, 6-8 p.m.