Growing up in the South as a Black kid, for many, has been a complex journey for as long as the country has existed. For centuries, the South was often looked at as a place you got away from; a move that marked even the hope of a sliver of greater personal freedom. Although many of today’s textbooks muddy the progress of Black Americans across the country, the stubbornness of the South is particularly compelling. 

To date, the teachings of Black life in the South typically begin with slavery, glossing over nearly a century to the Emancipation Proclamation before landing on the Civil Rights Movement. Our stories often don’t make the cut, in favor of more general history, and the names and legacies of Black America remain in the shadows. One museum exhibit, however, is preserving its city’s history through a free exhibition that highlights important historical moments, both regionally and nationally. 

Intersection on Main Street: African American Life in Columbia is a beautiful collection of photos and personal mementos that paint a more vivid picture of Black life, joy, and progress. Located in the Our Story Matters Gallery at the Columbia Museum of Art, the free exhibit highlights the lives and experiences of African Americans in Columbia, South Carolina from the 1870s to the 1970s.

Showcasing Columbia’s Significance in Southern & Civil Rights History

customers preparing for sit-in demonstration in Columbia, SC in the 1960s
Photo credit: Claflin University

The Washington Street Business District in South Carolina’s capital city, Columbia, is the focus of many elements of the exhibit. Flanked by Atlanta and Charlotte, Columbia’s Main Street was the stage for several defining moments during the Civil Rights Movement. Intersection on Main Street shows people’s daily lives and experiences in downtown Columbia, focusing on the Black business district on Washington Street. This location is the scene of powerful stories, entrepreneurial spirit, and community resilience that shaped life in the city. 

Intersection captures the vibrancy and resilience of African American history and culture along the Washington Street Corridor. African American citizens’ determination and resistance are also portrayed as they dismantled segregation and discrimination in downtown Columbia.

The studio of famed photographer, Richard Samuel Roberts, lends images to form a large portion of the exhibition. Visitors to the exhibit will have an opportunity to view many of Roberts’ photographs for the first time. Additional materials from the era supplement Roberts’ works including other photographs, newspaper clippings, maps, directories, and other historical artifacts. From family portraits to Black-owned businesses, this curation, led by Dr. Bobby Donaldson, historian and executive director of the Civil Rights Center, is an empowering albeit complex depiction of Black life in Columbia.

Intersection provides visitors an opportunity to learn more about the vibrant African American history and culture located in the heart of the city’s downtown corridor,” said Dr. Bobby Donaldson, historian and executive director of the Civil Rights Center. “The exhibition features the individuals, institutions, and organizations of downtown Columbia that established and maintained a resilient Black community and business district in the midst of segregation and discrimination.”

Connecting the Dots, But Questions Remain

“Together, the look down Washington Street and the walk down Main Street provides viewers a unique perspective about chapters of our collective history that often have been overlooked, silenced, and literally uprooted,” shares Dr. Donaldson with Travel Noire.

Throughout the gallery, visitors will view captivating images of unknown or unidentified persons. While the current exhibit is the result of extensive research, the curation team is asking visitors to assist with further identification. Visitors interested in sharing stories or historical items also have the opportunity to contribute to the project.

The Intersection exhibit is on display throughout 2024 and admission is free. Group tours are available on Columbia SC 63’s website. Tours are available Tuesdays through Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Thursdays from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. This exhibit is the perfect addition to lunch downtown or a casual afternoon in Columbia. This museum stop has all the makings of determination, resilience, and Southern pride.