Throughout downtown Greenville, century-plus-old sites — especially churches and cemeteries, sanctuaries and resting places for souls living and dead — stand as tributes to the city’s Black heritage.
“For the culture of the Black American, it’s important for us to hold onto the memory of our history,” says Vinson Royal, who was installed on Jan. 22 as the 16th pastor of Springfield Baptist Church, the oldest historically Black Baptist church in downtown Greenville.
So let’s start our Black History Month tour there.
Springfield Baptist Church
The church was organized two years after the Civil War. Then in 1870, 65 formerly enslaved individuals built a sanctuary at 600 E. McBee Ave., a 10-minute walk from Christ Episcopal Church, which was consecrated in September 1854.
Like Christ Church, whose congregants included some of the city’s most prominent power players, Springfield boasted towering members. Two of those were A.J. Whittenberg, a church trustee and Sunday school teacher in the 1940s and ‘50s whose name graces A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering; and Helen Burns Jackson, mother of civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In 1960, Jackie Robinson, the professional baseball player who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, led a march from the church to Greenville Downtown Airport. He had been turned away from its waiting room.
The original structure burned down on Jan. 25, 1972, two days and 51 years after Pastor Vinson Royal became Springfield’s new pastor.
The bell outside still rings for occasions as significant as those it commemorated before the new sanctuary was built in 1976.
Richland Cemetery, wedged on six acres between North Church Street and East Stone Avenue, was established in January 1884, the first municipal burial ground for Black Greenvillians in downtown. The National Register of Historic Places included the cemetery in 2005.
“Richland is the final resting place of at least 1,400 individuals, including many of Greenville’s most influential educators, activists, health care practitioners and community leaders,” according to the city of Greenville’s website about the cemetery at 8363 Sunflower St.
Another historically Black cemetery downtown lies tucked along Rutherford Road in Brutontown. The neighborhood is named after Benjamin Bruton, a freed mulatto who built a home and blacksmith shop there.
Gravesites inch toward Rutherford’s southbound sidewalk, where, according to a Furman University article, “amid a tangle of vines and roots, the stones point to residents — some believed to be slaves — who were buried at the hillside cemetery carved out for the indigent after the Civil War.”
Former Greenville County Courthouse
While not what you’d call a historic monument to Black history, the courthouse, built in 1918 and now housing M. Judson Booksellers at 130 S. Main St., made the history books as the site of what is considered the largest lynching trial in the U.S.
In February 1947, 31 white men, almost all of them taxicab drivers, abducted Willie Earle, a 24-year-old Black man, from Pickens County Jail. Earle had been arrested on charges he allegedly stabbed to death Thomas Watson Brown, another cabbie. The mob drove Earle to a remote slaughterhouse and dumped his unrecognizable corpse on the side of the road.
After a nine-day trial the following May, all the defendants were acquitted. The proceedings drew the attention of the day’s celebrity journalists, national and state politicians, and even J. Edgar Hoover, the then-FBI director. John H. McCray Jr., publisher and editor for The Lighthouse & Observer, the Black newspaper in Columbia at the time, wrote about the trial and contributed stories about it to The Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s largest Black paper.
Today, little remains of the proceedings that occurred in the courthouse, where Black observers were forced to sit in the insufferably hot balcony.
Until the bakery closed in 1973, Greenvillians who drove past 400 Augusta St. sucked in the succulent aroma of freshly baked bread. Nearly a half-dozen years before that, though, 22 African American employees went on strike to protest the company’s discriminatory practices.
Greenville native Jesse Jackson helped bring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Greenville in April 1967. At the bakery, “King preached economic justice and support for the Claussen workers who ‘had been called boys… then they stood up like men,’” according to The Green Book of South Carolina.
Mrs. W.H. Smith Tourist Home
Here’s a spot you rarely find listed among the more prominent places in Greenville’s Black history.
The 1954 edition of “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book: The Guide to Travel and Vacations” lists the “tourist home” on page 61, along with two others that served as lodging for Jim Crow-era Black travelers.
The two-story clapboard house on Asbury Avenue in the Southernside community accommodated some of the day’s biggest names in entertainment. Though they performed for segregated audiences at Textile Hall, they couldn’t stay in whites-only hotels.
Traa Lake, who lived there for a time beginning in 1963, told the Greenville Journal in 2020 that she remembered impromptu performances from guests who included the likes of Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.