Arts Feature

McKissick Shows S.C. Civil Rights Photos

By Jeffrey Day
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Photo by David Wallace

Entering a second-floor gallery of the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum, one is confronted by a history that until recently was largely invisible. Defying the Quiet: Photography of the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina uses 90 photographs and video footage to tell the story of the era as it unfolded in Columbia.

The photographs capture images of protesters marching on Main and Harden streets, sit-downs at segregated lunch counters, a pilgrimage to the State House by civil rights activists and two young men standing at the entrance to the USC Osborne Administration building just after they were turned away when they tried to enroll. The videos show a visit by Malcolm X to Columbia and speeches by Gov. Ernest Hollings, Sen. Strom Thurmond and other elected officials speaking out against the protests.

The coup of the exhibition is the photography of David Wallace, which has never before been widely shown. In the 1950s, Wallace settled in Columbia, his wife’s hometown, where he was a real estate broker and a founder of the Urban League. He took hundreds of photographs of the protests and meetings in Columbia, but kept most of them private. About 30 of the photos in the show are by Wallace, who died in 2011.

McKissick Museum Director Jane Przybysz learned about Wallace’s photos from a member of the museum community advisory board and contacted his daughter Elizabeth Wallace about showing them.

“Dad had a strong interest in social justice issues,” Elizabeth Wallace says. “In South Carolina, he of course saw many levels of discrimination right in front of him and believed that the camera could tell a story and shed light on what the powers that be wanted to keep hidden.” 

The Smithsonian Institution has requested she donate the photographs to it.

“I was introduced to one of the curators at the Smithsonian and immediately upon seeing the photos she asked what we wanted to name the collection,” Wallace says. “She was taken by the visual quality [and] technical precision, as well as the historic importance.”

The Wallace photos add much to the civil rights in Columbia story, says Bobby Donaldson, a USC history professor who heads the Columbia SC 63 project.

“What made them so important was that we see the storefronts and have a better idea of the places the protests took place,” Donaldson says. In the background one can see signs for local stores, including Walgreens and Kress.

The exhibit — co-curated by Donaldson and McKissick exhibitions curator Ned Puchner — is a collaboration between the museum and the Columbia SC 63 project, which has been documenting and commemorating the often-overlooked civil rights movement in Columbia.

“One of the biggest discoveries was evidence of Malcolm X’s visit,” Donaldson says. “It was talked about, but hadn’t been confirmed.”

Also discovered was a photo of Medgar Evers at the Zion Baptist Church on Washington Street, taken in 1961, two years before he was assassinated. And then there’s the photo of a group of white students preparing to burn a cross on the USC Horseshoe, another event that had never before been confirmed.

The exhibition also contains photos taken by newspaper photographers from The State and by Cecil Williams, especially his images from the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre.

Part of the Columbia SC 63 project has also involved trying to identify subjects in the photos. Donaldson and his students have shown the pictures at various events and gathered input from those who recognize people in the images.

“This shows how little we know — this is my aunt,” Donaldson says, pointing to a young woman wearing cat-eye glasses in a photo. “She’s never mentioned taking part.” 

The exhibition runs through Jan. 17. McKissick Museum is located on the USC Horseshoe. It is open Mon-Fri 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sat 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is closed Sundays. The museum will be closed Dec. 21 - Jan. 1.

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