USC’s Bobby Donaldson chronicles SC’s Black history. It began with his great-grandfather

Some begin their day with a cup of coffee. Every morning when he wakes up, Bobby Donaldson checks the obituaries.

Obituaries commemorate birth dates and death dates. But it’s the dashes between the two that Donaldson is interested in. Those dashes represent peoples’ lives.

Donaldson is a scholar of African American history and a history professor at the University of South Carolina. His work is built around Black South Carolinians, whose history has been neglected, lost with time or erased. These stories motivate Donaldson every day.

Reading obituaries gives him a sense of urgency, and reminds him that the clock is ticking, that these stories are waiting to be told.

“People don’t realize their lives have historic value,” Donaldson said.

Poetic justice and a return home

Donaldson studies history not as an objective scholar, he said, but as the descendant of enslaved people in South Carolina, who couldn’t have imagined that he’s doing the work that he is.

“That’s poetic justice,” Donaldson said.

He grew up in a public housing project in Augusta, Georgia, but he has deep roots in South Carolina. After all, the two are merely separated by the Savannah River, Donaldson said.

His great-grandfather, Smart Williams Jr., was from a tiny town near Aiken. Donaldson called him “Mo-Daddy.”

Mo-Daddy, born in 1897, commanded respect. He was a farmer and a World War I veteran. He was a stoic man with a second grade education who sat in the same seat at church each week and owned two pairs of overalls. He was a scholar without a degree, Donaldson said, a “lay historian” — it wasn’t his profession, but he knew how to tell a story.

Mo-Daddy’s stories nurtured Donaldson’s passion for history as a child. As he grew, it did also.

His education took him miles from South Carolina, from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, to Emory University in Georgia, to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and beyond.

He began studying government and political science with every intention of becoming a lawyer.

But he kept coming back to history.

Fast forward to the spring of 1999. Donaldson was offered positions at several universities. USC was one of them, at a time when the African American studies program was expanding.

Being able to teach history at the University of South Carolina, Donaldson said, was like going back to his roots.

“It was a return home,” Donaldson said.

Shattering silence, one story at a time

When Donaldson joined USC’s faculty, people told him that not much had happened in South Carolina with regards to the civil rights movement.

Donaldson has spent his career challenging that perspective, one document, one photograph, one story at a time.

“South Carolina had a very vibrant, active civil rights movement,” Donaldson said. “It was consequential in some respects.”

Donaldson has invested in building rapport and relationships with community members — they are not the subjects of research, he said, rather partners.

“It opens pages of history that have been largely overlooked,” Donaldson said. “Oral interviews fill in the blanks, they shatter the silence.”

He spent hours sitting with long-time South Carolina civil rights activists like Donella Brown Wilson, the daughter of sharecroppers and former Midlands teacher.

“(She) invited me into her home in the late 90s and poured into me her memories of life in South Carolina,” Donaldson said.

Conversations with Columbia native the Rev. A.C. Redd, a 1935 graduate of Booker T. Washington High School and NAACP leader in the 1950s, were also eye-opening.

“He gave me a crash course in civil rights history,” Donaldson said. “He relayed to me details, individuals and circumstances that I have not read in any publication.”

History often privileges certain moments, Donaldson said. South Carolina’s historical role in the national civil rights movement has been largely unexplored. Many don’t realize that some of the most influential moments were preceded by the work of activists in the state.

Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Sarah Mae Flemming. Her public transportation case in Columbia helped Parks win in the U.S. Supreme Court some 17 months later.

Before the Supreme Court’s landmark case Brown v. Board of Education said segregation was unconstitutional in 1954, parents in Clarendon County argued for educational equality in the 1952 case Briggs v. Elliott.

Charlestonian Septima Clark was called the “mother of the movement” by figures like Martin Luther King Jr.

The Freedom Rides, a group protesting segregation of interstate buses that included the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, rode through the state in 1961. In Rock Hill they were confronted, several of them beaten.

And while hundreds of photographs document the civil rights movement in cities like Montgomery, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee, Donaldson said, Columbia had only a handful.

“The best way to weaken a movement is by not giving it publicity and exposure,” Donaldson said.

In 2012, Donaldson and Columbia SC 63, a project commemorating the civil rights movement, set out to find what was lost. They were granted access to The State newspaper’s photo archives and discovered exactly what they were looking for.

The State Media Co. had boxes overflowing with negatives, images of demonstrations, protests and mass meetings that no one had ever seen before. The Richland Library is now digitizing those photographs.

Several years later in 2015, Donaldson was a leader in creating USC’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research at USC, which is dedicated to South Carolina’s role in the movement.

A partnership between USC’s College of Arts and Sciences and USC Libraries, the center is a robust collection of newspapers, oral histories, photographs, television news footage and papers from local civil rights leaders like Joseph A. De Laine from Clarendon County, John Bolt Culbertson of Greenville, I. DeQuincey Newman and Modjeska Monteith Simkins of Columbia, and Rep. Jim Clyburn’s congressional papers, which were a cornerstone of the center’s formation.

Donaldson said it is one of the greatest collections of African American history in the country.

“These materials are not just artifacts, they’re not just historic documents. They are a reflection of our past,” Donaldson said.

J.T. McLawhorn, president of the Columbia Urban League, said Donaldson continues to be nationally sought after. But he is committed to South Carolina.

“He’s a scholar and he’s a truthseeker,” McLawhorn said. “He’s a major asset to us.”

University of South Carolina professor Dr. Bobby Donaldson, shows public history projects he has been involved in in Downtown Columbia, South Carolina on Thursday, March 9, 2023.
University of South Carolina professor Dr. Bobby Donaldson, shows public history projects he has been involved in in Downtown Columbia, South Carolina on Thursday, March 9, 2023.

A bridge between USC, community

Many of the people Donaldson speaks with have no great admiration for the University of South Carolina, Donaldson said. Some see it as an adversary. It was complicit in the intentional erasure of Columbia’s Black communities.

A parcel of land that is now home to the Koger Center, the Carolina Coliseum and Colonial Life Arena was once called Ward One, a historically Black neighborhood in Columbia. But only a long-time resident of the city might know that — someone like Agnes Harris Davis.

Davis came to Donaldson in hopes of partnering to preserve the history of the neighborhood.

“I knew those spaces as parking lots, as the university’s sports arena,” Donaldson said. “She knew it as her home.”

The growth of the University of South Carolina and expansion of South Carolina state government came at the expense of Black neighborhoods. Black homes, Black churches and Black schools were demolished.

“It was a thriving community,” said Ella Wider, a consultant for the historical Ward One Organization.

As public schools became desegregated and USC expanded, Booker T. Washington High School closed. The property, located at the corner of Marion and Blossom streets, was acquired by USC.

The school was an emblem of African American enterprise and ingenuity and pride, Donaldson said, and the university tore it down. Its bricks were used to pave the Horseshoe, part of an institution that, to many, embodied segregation and Jim Crow.

The Booker T. Washington Auditorium, located at the 1400 block of Wheat St., is all that remains.

“Development comes at the expense of people of color in this city,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson, with a team of researchers and students, spent nearly a decade preserving records and photographs and conducting interviews to uncover and preserve the history of Ward One. It culminated in an award-winning documentary and a permanent exhibit about Ward One in the Palmetto Compress Building, one of the only original neighborhood buildings still standing.

He also had a hand in renaming a USC residence hall after Celia Dial Saxon, a former Ward One leader.

“Whatever success is attributed to me, is a direct reflection of the talented array of students who have supported me and faculty colleagues who work alongside me, but especially lay historians in this community throughout South Carolina,” Donaldson said.

Wider said Donaldson’s research is appreciated. She said he’s helped build bridges between the university and the Ward One community.

“(He’s) laying that foundation for recognizing some past issues,” Wider said.

Because of the time he spends getting to know people and understanding their stories, Wider said Donaldson has become like a part of the family.

Joel Samuels, dean of USC’s College of Arts and Science, said it is important for the university to partner with community members who have been harmed by its expansion.

Dr. Donaldson is a unique figure at the university in that he merges academic enterprise with community engagement and connection in ways that I have rarely ever seen before,” Samuels said.

When the National Parks Service came to Columbia to announce $3.4 million was to be awarded to the Center for Civil Rights, Samuels said, Donaldson was the only person he’s ever seen receive a standing ovation before he spoke.

“That speaks to the esteem he’s held in by members of the Columbia community and actually across the state,” Samuels said. “He’s held in similar regard on campus. ... He’s magnetic, he’s genuine, he’s warm, he has a true commitment to the work he’s doing that shines through in every way.”

Nurturing the next generation

Donaldson, once inspired by the family and teachers of his youth, is taking a turn in shaping the next generation of historians.

Despite censorship, despite critical race theory critics, Donaldson is motivated by the decline in the teaching of history.

Jazmyne McCrae, a recent USC grad, was once Donaldson’s student. She said she was never one to speak up in class, but Donaldson helped her find her voice and her bravery.

“(It) was always there, I just needed someone to unlock it,” McCrae said.

Now McCrae teaches U.S. History at Richland Northeast High School. She often incorporates lessons she learned from Donaldson.

“He’s one of those people who inspires without having to try at all,” McCrae said. “As a result of being Dr. Donaldson’s student, I became an activist. … He lit a fire in me that hasn’t gone out.”