Historic Civil Rights site is praised, then razed | The State Newspaper Features Recently Demolished Historic Site

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By: Staff, Historic Columbia

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On Saturday, July 21, 2012 a historic marker was placed at the Waverly Five and Dime store located at 2313 Gervais Street. Less than a week later the building was demolished by the First Nazareth Baptist Church, the current owners of the property. The State newspaper featured the following story on the front page of Tuesday, July 31st paper.

Civil rights pioneer George Elmore lost his Waverly 5-and-10 cent store in the late 1940s when he dared to put his name on a lawsuit ending South Carolina’s all-white primaries, a decision leading to economic reprisals and his financial ruin.

Now, the old brick storefront that sat at 2313 Gervais St. is lost again, this time reduced to a pile of rubble and a swift demolition Friday by the church next door, First Nazareth Baptist Church.

In an ironic twist, a historic marker was placed in front of the 1935 building a week earlier during a ceremony attended by city leaders, academics and church members, honoring Elmore and his contributions to the state’s civil rights history.

“There is a beautiful historical marker now standing in front of a pile of rubble,” Robin Waites, executive director of the Historic Columbia Foundation, said Monday. “I’m just furious.”

Cresswell Elmore, George Elmore’s son, said Monday he knew the building his father once rented was in bad shape. But he said he had pleaded with the church’s pastor, the Rev. Blakeney Scott, at the marker dedication to hold off on razing the building. Cresswell Elmore hoped the facade could be incorporated into the church’s plans for the property, which sits adjacent to the imposing church at Millwood Avenue and Gervais Street.

“We all spoke to him and we didn’t know he was in a hurry to destroy it,” said Cresswell Elmore, of New Bern, N.C. “I was just totally distraught.”

Efforts to reach Scott for comment were unsuccessful on Monday.

The church purchased the property in 2010 for $122,000. Plans for the property are unclear.

Waites said her organization had partnered with the African-American congregation to install the marker as part of the church’s 135th anniversary celebration and was working “toward some positive representation of that history.”

“Perhaps it is a little bit of naïveté on my part, but I arrived to do the marker on July 21 and there were demolition signs on the building,” she said. Waites said she quickly alerted civic leaders, including Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, in hopes of staving off the destruction of a building that is part of Columbia’s historic Waverly community. But she learned at 6 p.m. Friday that the building was destroyed.

In an email, Benjamin said the demolition was a tragedy, saying the structure “stood as a monument to courage and commitment in the struggle for civil rights.”

“My only hope is that this loss will further highlight the need to preserve and protect our historic treasures and ensure that we never lose an irreplaceable piece of our shared history and culture like this again.”

One church member, M.L. Kohn, spent part of Monday salvaging bricks and other artifacts from the site.

“I thought maybe we had a change of mind about tearing it down,” Kohn said, “but it was something planned as part of progress.”

Elmore was an industrious entrepreneur, operating the popular Waverly dime store, two liquor stores and a taxi service. He also was active in the NAACP, which was working to end segregation and restore civil rights to the state’s African-Americans, including the right to vote.

In 1946, Elmore was approached by the civil rights organization to challenge the all-white Democratic primaries that were the vehicle for elected political leaders in the state. Democrats, who ran the state’s political machine, claimed the state’s primaries were private clubs, immune from constitutional scrutiny.

After attempting, unsuccessfully, to vote in the August 1946 Democratic primary, Elmore contested the white primary in a lawsuit filed Feb. 21, 1947, by the NAACP on his behalf, Elmore v. Rice.

On July 12, 1947, U.S. District Judge Waties Waring, who would later preside over the state’s signature school desegregation case, ruled in Elmore’s favor.

Almost immediately, Elmore began to suffer reprisals.

He lost his home nearby at 907 Tree St. when the bank called in the loan, but not before crosses were burned on the front lawn. White vendors refused to stock his shelves and his liquor licenses were revoked.

“He had to pay cash for everything after that time,” Cresswell Elmore recalled. Cash in a postwar economy was scarce, particularly for African-Americans. His wife, Laura, suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. George Elmore died in 1959 at the age of 53.

Vennie Deas Moore, a cultural historian, said it’s often a battle to get people to understand the value of historic buildings that aren’t big and grand. Often, historic markers are erected at addresses where buildings significant to the city’s history used to stand.

University of South Carolina history professor Bobby Donaldson said he understands the tension that exists for urban congregations such as First Nazareth that want to expand their Christian missions.

He said the quick demolition of a building that had such a story to tell, particularly to young people, suggests that other structures around Columbia could be at risk.

“I know last week there was a lot of concern about that building being saved — and then you turn your head and it was gone,” Donaldson said.

The Historic Columbia Foundation has a list of dozens of unprotected landmarks.

Lawyer and preservation advocate Steve Morrison said the building’s loss was especially poignant given assaults on the right to vote that Elmore worked so hard to attain.

Morrison said he’s hoping the demolition will spin into an effort to identify and protect buildings associated with the Civil Rights era. “We don’t want a community full of empty buildings that are museums,” he said, “but we want a community full of the life of the past, as well as the present.”

Cresswell Elmore said the loss has prompted family members to consider a way to preserve their Tree Street home as a memorial to their father’s sacrifice, a move that Kohn and others support.

Lonnie Randolph, who lives in Waverly, said the loss of the Elmore store is nothing new.

“The history of people of color has no significance in this state,” he said. “Look at our schools. Look at what happened to Booker T. Washington (High School). That’s just one of many examples of what happens to our institutions as time moves on.”