Identity of Columbia, S.C., complicated but changing

Thursday, August 16, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:43 a.m. CDT, Monday, September 24, 2012
Columbia, S.C., where the former Sen. Strom Thurmond is legend, still has traces of the old South. But attitudes and legacies are changing.

Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section. Other stories in the section are available to Missourian digital subscribers. Find out how to become a member and gain unlimited access to the Missourian's apps and website.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In the plaza outside the South Carolina State House, on top of a stone block, a man caught in mid-stride is sculpted of bronze.

A group of elementary school students and their chaperones enter the plaza from the east side, each carrying a clipboard.

They are on a field trip. They are also on a scavenger hunt.

A group of ten or so quickly approaches the statue.

“Who is it?” someone shouts.

“It’s… It’s… It’s Storm Thunder!”

It is not Storm Thunder. It’s former Sen. Strom Thurmond.

His name is easy to find in Columbia. The statue bears his name. So does the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center on the University of South Carolina’s campus.

Thurmond’s legacy is complex. He is infamous for his segregationist policies, but revered by both his constituents and colleagues. He is cast as a relic of the confederacy, but also considered a true patriot. His policies and his personal behavior didn’t always match up, either.

At the suggestion that Columbia is Thurmond’s city, one 60-year Columbia resident is quick to correct.

“It’s his state,” she says. “He’s a legend here.”

Early in his career, Thurmond’s support of segregation earned him a reputation as a racist, but later he was known more for his durability — he cast more than 15,000 votes in the Senate during his 49-year career — than his policies.

There are still traces of the old South here, but attitudes are shifting and memories are fading.

As Thurmond’s legacy changed, so too did South Carolina and its capital.

A neighborhood transformed

Overhead, exposed beams look almost unsafely old. The wooden floor is a pale blue, accented brown where it’s been chipped away by time.

Lots and lots of time.

This is the 19th century warehouse where Pam Harpootlian operates her furniture business Carolina Imports, where ironically, the products look old but are actually brand new.

Twenty years ago, the area to the west of downtown Columbia just above the banks of the Congaree River was a wasteland — filled almost exclusively by unused warehouses, mills and railroad depots

“Oh my gosh it was decrepit,” Harpootlian says. “It was where the homeless people slept.”

A joint venture between the city and private business owners turned urban blight into Columbia’s trendiest neighborhood — The Vista.

“It’s the hot area right now,” says Harpootlian. “The hottest.”

The old railroad depot has become the “Blue Marlin,” an upscale seafood restaurant. Next door to Carolina Imports, in a former cotton warehouse, is the City Market Antiques Mall. There are tapas bars, art galleries, wine bistros and wedding boutiques — all housed in historic buildings and designed to cater to Columbia’s older population.

“This is definitely the adult’s playground,” says David Dubley, a 40-year Columbia resident who was eating lunch at the Wild Hare, a sports bar and cafe in The Vista.

Art has become central in The Vista’s development. The neighborhood features ten galleries and studios, and twice a year the streets are blocked off for art festivals.

For an area that was once strictly industrial, the transformation is remarkable.

“It’s very coordinated,” says Carol Saunders, who owns the Carol Saunders Gallery, which features an eclectic mix of handmade jewelry. “The city has really refocused on the arts over the past 25 years."

Identity crisis

Imagine if the Missouri State House in Jefferson City was 30 steps from the MU campus instead of 30 minutes. That’s the situation in Columbia, S.C.

So how, then, does the city define itself? Capital or college town? Growing urban metropolis or sleepy Southern hamlet?

Twenty-five years ago, Carol Saunders was part of a group, led by nationally prominent consultant Ralph Burgard, put in charge of trying to help Columbia define itself.

“Nobody could come up with a single identifying factor,” Saunders recalls.

Commissioned to develop a slogan, though, the group was forced to settle on everyone’s favorite conversational safety net: the weather.

“It ended up being ‘famously hot,’” Saunders says.

In a city where temperatures routinely climb into the 90s five months per year, the slogan stuck. It’s the banner on the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website, and the group’s logo is three flames.

The heat and the spirit of Columbia’s residents are most definitely Southern, but one thing isn’t — the architecture. Trademarks like wrought iron gates and pastel-colored facades are notably absent from view. To see those, it’s a 120-mile drive down I-26 to the Atlantic Ocean and Charleston.

The reason? Columbia was burned to the ground in 1865, two months before the end of the Civil War.

“You can blame General Sherman for that,” Harpootlian says. “I think they cut a deal with the Yankees down in Charleston.”

Despite not being as attractive as its coastal counterpart, resident Greg Moise says that Columbia has other merits.

“Charleston is far more transient,” Moise says. “This is a much more livable everyday city. Columbia people come here and they stay here for their whole life.”

On campus

The university’s Greek Village is nearly as beautiful as its famous horseshoe. Immaculately manicured lawns lead to equally impressive fraternity and sorority houses. As a light rain stops, and the sun comes out in the evening, the houses are soaked in a golden light. The light gives the red brick houses an orange glow.

On the patio of Sigma Nu, J.D. Hammond and Kyle Smith enjoy the evening with Smith’s dog, Czar. The duo agrees that living in the well-kept neighborhood is the biggest benefit to joining a fraternity at South Carolina.

“It’s actually been a model for other schools,” says Smith. “Virginia Tech and Georgia have both come by here to get a sense of how to expand their own Greek Villages.”

There are, of course, other perks to being one of the just over 20 percent of students at South Carolina who are part of the Greek system.

“Each frat gets a tent at home games to tailgate,” Smith says. “It’s really tough tailgating here if you don’t have a group.”

But if you’re expecting John Belushi setting fire to his flatulence, or Will Ferrell streaking through the quad and up to the gymnasium, South Carolina is not the place for you. On this Friday evening, the village is more serene than the rest of campus, and according to Smith, it pretty much stays that way throughout the year. Since the village is technically on campus, the houses are subject to university rules and patrols.

“We’re not as outrageous as other schools because we’re on campus,” Smith says. “You’re not going to come here and find people falling down unable to control themselves.”

Giant parties aren’t the only myth about Greek life at South Carolina. Across the street, on the patio at Kappa Alpha, Walt Robinson reflected on his experiences with the stereotypes the Gamecocks, and South Carolinians as a state, have come to face.

“Our state is pretty well-known for not being the most accepting,” Robinson says. “Every time we meet someone from out of town, especially Northern people, they tell us, ‘You’re completely different from what we thought you were going to be.’”

A losing tradition broken

In seat 17 of the third row of metal bleachers behind the left-field wall, Brett Wells has something to cheer about.

At this moment, he, along with 8,200 of his closest friends, is going wild because Grayson Greiner has just put the Gamecocks baseball team ahead of Alabama with a three-run home run.

Wells is giving out so many high five requests that he’s actually rejected by a couple nearby fans.

It’s not just this one home run that has Wells excited, however.

Two national championship trophies — 2010 and 2011 — sit in a case behind the center-field wall. The football team made its first-ever appearance in the SEC championship game in 2010.

The Gamecocks have begun to reverse a long tradition of losing.

“When we joined the SEC (beginning with the 1991-92 basketball season), people said, ‘You can’t win,’” Wells says, in a throaty drawl. “It’s taken us 20 years, but now we’re finally doing what it takes.”

Part of doing what it takes was building Carolina Stadium, which could easily be mistaken for a high-level minor-league facility. With 6,400 actual seats, luxury suites and club seats on the second deck and an HD video board in left field, the home of the Gamecocks is more than suitable.

The fans have responded, both to the success and the stadium. South Carolina finished 2011 fourth in the NCAA in baseball attendance, averaging 7,431 fans per game. That figure also happened to be fourth in the SEC, behind LSU, Ole Miss and Arkansas.

Wells, a lifelong Gamecock fan, says the tides are most definitely turning in favor of South Carolina, but he is also cautious.

“We hadn’t tasted any success until two years ago, but man, come on, right now what we’ve got going is special,” he says. “Then again, I’m dumb. I’m a Gamecock, and that comes with 100 years of losing.”

Five Points

The taxi driver laughs at the request to be dropped off at a bar named Breakers in Five Points.

“Do you know where it is? Like what street?” she asks. “Honey, these places change names so often, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. How about I just drop you off in the center of Five Points?”

With parties in the Greek Village a no-no, South Carolina students turn to Five Points to provide them with a place to drink and revel in the college experience.

“We’re very downtown oriented here as far as partying goes,” said Sigma Nu’s Hammond. “If I had a friend in town, and we were looking to have a good time, Five Points is where we’d go.”

Set just east of campus, the neighborhood’s selection of bars is extensive, and, according to Jackie the cab driver, in a state of constant flux.

Recommendations on places to go varied for the most part, so the only option was to just dive right in and begin an exploratory pub crawl.

The cleverly named Group Therapy, and its hotly contested pool table was the first stop. The crowd was diverse. Men with white dreadlocks talked with international students from Dubai, though their names were inaudible over the pounding bass of Jay-Z's “99 Problems.”

At Lucky’s, aspiring country musician Jesse Moore channels '90s rockers Hootie and the Blowfish, who got their start as students at South Carolina, with a rousing acoustic cover of “Let Her Cry.”

The crowd, however, was more receptive to Moore’s next selection: Alabama’s “Song of the South.”

“Sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth!” they sing in unison. It’s the loudest cheer of the evening.

A few doors down at Sharky’s, the attraction is a beer pong table, where two female students appear locked in a heated battle with two male students.

There was one recommendation, however, that was almost universal from every South Carolina student: Finish at Pavlov’s.

So just after 1 a.m., Pavlov’s was the final stop.

Inside was a mass of humanity, each person seemingly indistinguishable from another. Men dressed in plaid shirts and salmon-colored shorts and girls in casual dresses filled the inside. Getting a drink required a combination of slinking through small gaps and throwing the occasional elbow. Shoes stuck to the floor. Getting spilled on was a regular occurrence rather than a cause for concern.

The patio was no different. Smoke rose as students chatted about their impending final exams, sang along to “Song of the South” (again) and enjoyed their final weekend before the end of the semester.

At 2 a.m., Pavlov’s is too packed for comfort. Taxis are a constant presence in the driveway outside.

Goodnight, Strom

It is just after 2 a.m. and Strom Thurmond is alone, except for a stray white cat that roams the plaza outside the State House.

There are no leaf blowers or schoolchildren to disturb the silence at this hour — the noise of the revelers in Five Points is too distant to hear here.

Untangling Thurmond’s legacy is a complicated process.

There is the undeniable fact that he supported segregation.

“There aren’t enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” he said, during a speech in 1948.

Yet if you believe his colleagues, that Thurmond isn’t the one people remember.

“His legacy in South Carolina is quite simple for every South Carolinian — black, white, rich, poor, no matter whether you are from upstate, middle, low State — I am sure every State has different regions and different dialects but the one thing we had in common: If we had a problem, we knew who to call,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in 2002. “We knew to pick up the phone and call Senator Thurmond because if he could help you, he would.”

But it’s something that happened after his death that might be even more indicative of Strom Thurmond the man.

Underneath Thurmond’s many titles and accomplishments carved in the stone block, is listed one final aspect of his life.

“Father of five children.”

This inscription wasn’t always there. The stone is damaged where the word “five” is carved.

It used to say “four.”

In December 2003, six months after Thurmond’s death at the age of 100, a biracial woman named Essie Mae Washington-Williams came forward with a shocking revelation.

Washington-Williams’ mother, Carrie Butler, had been a servant in Thurmond’s family’s house. Butler gave birth to her daughter in 1925, when she was just 16.

Strom Thurmond, then 22, was the father. Though both Thurmond and Washington-Williams kept their secret  from the public, they were introduced to each other in 1941. They kept a relationship throughout the rest of Thurmond’s life.

“Whenever I was in need, he would help me out financially,” Washington-Williams told CBS News in 2009.  “And as I said, he did a lot of counseling.”

Now, on the statue, underneath his other four children’s names Essie Mae’s is also present. It was added in 2004.

What was originally written in stone about Thurmond, and about South Carolina, has been revised.

Columbia's transformation is well underway.

 Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.

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