You can’t talk about the civil rights movement in Greenville without talking about Springfield Baptist Church and Sterling High School.
The movement started on New Year’s Day 1960 when an estimated 1,000 protestors marched on the downtown airport. It was ignited more than two months earlier when baseball great Jackie Robinson, who had been in Greenville to speak at the NAACP’s annual meeting, was denied access to the airport’s whites-only waiting area.
Springfield Baptist’s pastor the Rev. James Hall, who was just 25 years old, was among those who took Robinson to the airport.
In March, attention turned to the library. On July 16, the Greenville Eight (Jesse Jackson, Dorris Wright, Hattie Smith Wright, Elaine Means, Willie Joe Wright, Benjamin Downs, Margaree Seawright Crosby, and Joan Mattison Daniel) walked from Springfield Baptist to the whites-only library. They left when police arrived and said they would be locked up if they stayed.
They returned to the church. Hall told them to go back, get a book, and sit down. They did and were arrested.
The library sit-in wasn’t happenstance. It was strategic. The students who participated were top students and leaders trying to better themselves, said Greenville County Councilwoman Xanthene Norris, who taught most of the Greenville Eight at Sterling and is a trustee at Springfield Baptist.
“Something had to be done,” she said. “We could not sit by and not make changes. It took a lot of planning, but we had a lot of smart kids.”
The sit-ins continued, this time at downtown lunch counters at Woolworth’s and S.H. Kress.
Today, the Woolworth’s building is gone, and a bronze statue of two students from Sterling High now marks the spot of the lunch counter sit-in and other civil rights demonstrations.
Sterling High burned in 1967 and wasn’t rebuilt. Springfield Baptist was destroyed by fire in 1972. Only the church bell, which is now included as part of a brick marquee in front of the current sanctuary, survived.
“I’m happy I was a part of it all. I have no regrets, even though two places that I dearly loved burned,” Norris said.
While Woolworth’s is no longer standing, here are some landmarks from Greenville’s black history that are still standing:
When the corner for blacks in Greenville’s downtown Springwood Cemetery started running out of room, the city established Richland Cemetery in 1884. Estimates put the total number of graves at more than 1,400. Among those buried there are Phillis Wheatley Center founder Hattie Logan Duckett; Sterling High founder the Rev. Daniel M. Minus; Cora Kilgore Chapman, Greenville’s first black nurse and Greenville Hospital’s first African-American superintendent; and William R. Sewell, Greenville’s first African-American licensed contractor.
Sterling Community Center
Greenville’s oldest, and for more than 50 years its only black high school, was destroyed by fire in 1967. Students were dancing at a senior class party when the disc jockey told them to leave the building as quickly and calmly as possible. Only the gym and a small music building were left standing. The gym was turned into a community center in 1970.
Working Benevolent Temple
EP+Co’s home at the corner of Broad and Falls streets played a big role in the development of Greenville’s black business district. The Working Benevolent State Grand Lodge of South Carolina designed and built the building to serve as its headquarters and to provide offices for black doctors, lawyers, dentists, a newspaper, and insurance firms. It also housed the first black mortuary in Greenville.
Matoon Presbyterian Church
Matoon Presbyterian Church, built by former slaves in 1887, was once the only parochial school for African-American children in Greenville County. It is the oldest African-American Presbyterian church in Greenville County. The two-story red brick church on Hampton Avenue still operates today.
John Wesley United Methodist Church
The Rev. James R. Rosemond was a “slave preacher” before the Civil War. After the war, he organized several black churches in Greenville, Anderson, and Pickens counties, including John Wesley United Methodist Church, which was one of the earliest separate black congregations in the state. The foundation of the current church at East Court and Falls streets, the congregation’s third building, was laid in 1899.
Allen Temple AME Church
Allen Temple AME Church was organized during Reconstruction as a mission church and was formally organized as a separate congregation in 1881. Juan Benito Molina, a Cuban-born and -educated architect and the only black architect practicing in Greenville in the early 20th century, designed the current building, which was built in 1929-30.