Honoring Charleston's Civil Rights History
By Sarah Campbell | Online Only | Nov. 16, 2011
Meet Aurora Harris: a 2011 College of Charleston graduate, a Diversity Programs Intern for the Preservation Society of Charleston, and the leader of the newly-formed Charleston African American Preservation Alliance.
Combining an interest in African American history and a background in nonprofits, Harris coordinated CAAPA's first meeting in August, two months after beginning her internship. In attendance were more than 25 black artists, historians, community activists, and others invested in diversifying Charleston's preservation heritage. "I knew [my position] would involve a lot of outreach," she says, "but I didn't realize it would be building a new organization!"
The group's initial project will honor five Civil Rights sites in the city with historical markers –recognition that's long overdue. "So many people of that generation are leaving us," Harris notes. "In many cases, the 50th anniversaries [of these places] have already passed." CAAPA secured funding for the markers this year, three years after a report from the City of Charleston recommended the Preservation Alliance's formation.
Thirty-five contenders have been suggested since August, when CAAPA put out a call for submissions in a Post and Courier article. They include the National Register-listed Cigar Factory, thought to be the first place where striking workers sang "We Shall Overcome" in protest; 7 Felix St. and 60 Morris St., where the black-owned Brooks Motel served as the unofficial headquarters for Charleston's Civil Rights movement; and 270 Ashley Ave., where J. Arthur Brown once lived. Brown was an important figure in Charleston's NAACP chapter, but like many Civil Rights-era sites across the city, an empty lot is all that's left of his home.
"Our focus is on publicizing all of the sites—we're just able to mark five now," says Harris. Potential markers were narrowed down to 10 finalists last week and the goal is to unveil the plaques next spring. CAAPA is now in the process of creating a newspaper ballot of the 10 final sites that will ask readers to rank their top five.
CAAPA's mission statement is clear in its commitment to preserving culture as well as buildings. And Harris envisions even broader preservation work in the years ahead, once the organization has fully established itself. "Personally, I'd like to use CAAPA as a springboard for other groups, such as African American women, to use preservation as a source of empowerment," she says. "It's a way to tell their story."
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.