Through the efforts of local community leaders and sponsors, the history of Columbia’s black community will be preserved for generations to come.
On Wednesday afternoon behind the J.W. “Blind” Boone Home, city leaders unveiled the final markers for the African-American Heritage Trail.
The trail is a 2-mile walking trail in central Columbia that takes visitors to dozens of historical markers, each representing a different person or place important to Columbia’s black community.
The event was the second of two unveilings this month that mark the completion of the trail. The process has taken several years. Behind the project was the Sharp End Heritage Committee, a group tasked with creating this trail.
“It’s been a long journey but a great journey,” said James Whitt, the chairman of the committee. “I’m proud to be chairman of this committee, and I’m proud of what this committee has done.”
Whitt said he was proud to unveil the final markers but that the location of the event made it even more special.
“We’re doing it in the footprint of the historic ‘Blind’ Boone Home,” he said. “That makes it even more significant.”
The “Blind” Boone Home was the home of J.W. “Blind” Boone, a famous black musician. For many, he is a symbol of black achievement in Columbia at the turn of the 20th century.
Whitt led the ceremony and introduced a few guest speakers, one of whom Whitt credits with inspiring the trail.
Deacon Larry Monroe, who has lived in Columbia his whole life, was Whitt’s Sunday school teacher and remains a close friend. Monroe, Whitt said before inviting him to the lectern, lived through the history these markers represent. The deacon would constantly tell stories to Whitt and his peers about Columbia’s black history.
Many of the stories centered around the Sharp End, a black business district in Columbia that thrived until controversial urban renewal projects in the 1950s displaced business owners. Monroe said that when these urban renewal projects wiped out a large part of Columbia’s vibrant black community, they also wiped out people’s memory of that community’s history.
“If there had not been urban renewal, we would not be putting up markers,” Monroe told the crowd.
Then in 2015, Monroe and Whitt started identifying notable places in the Sharp End.
“And so I just threw it out there: ‘Why don’t we start a trail?’” Monroe said. “And of course, it took off like wildfire.”
Whitt and his committee then started researching these notable places and people and creating markers to explain their significance.
The last six of these markers were unveiled at the event.
Vicki Russell, another member of the Sharp End Heritage Committee, took to the lectern to introduce the sponsors that funded each marker. Those sponsors came on stage to explain the history behind their respective markers.
The markers recognized these important people and places:
St. Paul AME Church and Fifth Street Christian Church:
- These two historic black churches have served as spiritual and social hubs for the black community in Columbia since the 19th century. Founded in 1861 under the name “Second Christian Church,” Fifth Street Christian is considered to be the first black church in Columbia. St. Paul AME Church was founded in 1880 and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Trubie’s Market and Dr. Leroy McAllister:
- Trubie’s Market, owned by a white woman named Trubie Smith from the early 1940s into ’60s, was one of the few neighborhood markets serving black people at the time. It was also one of the few female-owned businesses at the time. Nearby this site was the home office of Dr. Leroy McAllister, Columbia’s only black dentist at the time. He was a graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and began practicing dentistry in the 1930s. He served people of all races and opened his office at any hour for ailing patients. He also served as a corporal in the U.S. Army during WWI.
St. Luke Methodist Church and the Tiger Theater:
- St. Luke Methodist Church is a historic black church that was founded in the 1860s. Sometime around 1922, the congregation moved to the only stone church built by black people in Columbia. After financial struggles and the condemnation of the church, the congregation moved to Ash Street, where the church remains today. Down the street was the Tiger Theater, which was owned and operated by Alvan B. Coleman, Edward Tibbs and Ellis Tibbs. This was a theater and night club frequented by black people in the 1950s.
- Adjacent to Columbia Cemetery, Cemetery Hill was largely populated with homes owned or rented by black people until urban renewal projects in the late 1950s displaced homeowners. The Columbia Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority designated the land for redevelopment, citing substandard conditions. About 450 people had to relocate. This was a problem because Columbia housing was still segregated at this time and housing options were limited for black people. Many residents moved into public housing units specifically created for this purpose. The land was later cleared for commercial development.
Columbia Cemetery: Many historic black figures are buried in this cemetery. Musician J.W. “Blind” Boone; nationally acclaimed horticulturist Henry Kirklin; Columbia’s first black police officer, Ernest D. Boone Jr.; and James T. Scott, who was lynched from the former Stewart Road bridge in 1923, are among those buried here. There are also several unmarked gravestones of former slaves and 42 graves of Columbia’s members of the U.S. Colored Troops of the Civil War. Initially, black people were only allowed to be buried in the south-central end.
The final marker unveiled was the trailhead, which will tell visitors what to expect.
While organizers said that these are the last markers they plan to place in the trail, Russell said the commission was open to adding more in the future.
Event attendees expressed excitement for the new trail.
“It’s almost like putting new pages in the history books of Columbia,” said John Kelly, who has lived in Columbia his whole life.
Kelly compared it to getting new editions of an encyclopedia that include information they didn’t have before. He is optimistic that this new information will be inspirational for youth in Columbia.
“It’ll give them hope that people who had seemingly insurmountable odds had successful businesses and careers,” he said.
The marker recognizing St. Paul AME Church was particularly special for Kelly.
“That sign is extremely important to me because it brings back so many memories,” said Kelly, who was baptized at the church and has been a lifelong member. “All these memories came flooding back.”
First Ward Councilman Clyde Ruffin also attended the event.
“I think what is most important is that the city of Columbia, its people and city officials are coming together to recognize Columbia’s unique African American history,” Ruffin said. “Not many cities have successfully launched a project on this scale.”