Some buildings have many lives. Take, for example, the Center for African American History, Art and Culture here in Aiken. What began as a freedmen’s school in the late-nineteenth century eventually became, in turn, a movie theater, a Roman Catholic parish, a Salvation Army store, a gas station and, in its present incarnation, a cultural center.
The story of this remarkable Victorian Vernacular structure begins with the dedication and enterprise of a single individual. A graduate of Lincoln University, a Black institution in Pennsylvania supported principally by the philanthropy of white Presbyterians, W. R. Coles devoted his professional life to ministering to the spiritual and educational needs of others. Under the auspices of the mission board of the Presbyterian Church USA, he organized the Immanuel Presbyterian church in Aiken in 1881 and a year later the Immanuel Training School.
The latter was initially housed in a rented home on Newberry Street; but given the institution’s expanding student population, a purpose-built structure was required. From the time of its completion in 1889 until 1911, Coles ran the school on York Street. After his resignation, it was rechristened the Andrew Robertson School and continued its educational purpose until 1934.
After a brief commercial interlude, the building was purchased by the Redemptorist Fathers, an African American Roman Catholic religious order. They established St. Gerard Parish, which used the structure as a church until 1964. Afterwards, various businesses took over the site until it was eventually abandoned.
Not until 2004 were plans developed to restore the building for use as a museum and cultural center. Just this year, the city took over responsibility for the Center and named a new executive director.
Recently, I had the privilege and pleasure to tour the building with its dynamic new director, Juanita Campbell. whom I’ve known since her days at USCA. Not having been inside since the Pam Durban reading during the 2018 statewide humanities festival in Aiken, I was gratified to see all of the work that had been done since my last visit.
Visitors now enter through the double doors in the front and into a capacious reception area with an office to the left and space for what will be a shop on the right. Currently gracing the walls are some of the splendidly intricate quilts created by Terri McGhee Jarrett. Plans are to keep some of these beautiful creations permanently on display in the Center as work progresses on the other rooms that zigzag through the first floor.
One room beyond the entryway has been set aside for temporary exhibitions, including shows of works by local artists; three other spaces will be dedicated to telling the story of the African American experience. The first of these rooms will replicate life in West Africa; the second, “the ship room,” will give visitors a sense of the restrictive conditions facing captives during the Middle Passage; the final space, the largest room on the first floor, will chronicle the trials and triumphs of African Americans in this country, with a special emphasis on the many contributions of the Black community to our fair city.
Some of the interior is already decorated with murals by A. C. Daniel and Tyler Richards. Plans are in the works for incorporating further artwork and all sorts of interactive educational activities for children in the three “museum” rooms.
During my recent tour, I must admit that I was most impressed by the event space on the second floor. Encompassing what Juanita Campbell thinks may very well have been the original school dormitory, this truly impressive room features large windows, old-growth pine floors, and an original fireplace. Replete with a contiguous catering kitchen, the room can easily accommodate 80 guests seated at circular tables or hold 120 people if the room is configured auditorium style. I can see a bright future for the space as a venue for private and public gatherings.
Already various organizations have been hosting events at the Center, and the second floor will be used for two upcoming book talks as part of Aiken’s “Voices and Votes” celebration: Richard Gergel’s presentation on his book “Unexampled Courage” on July 29 and Marjorie Spruill’s talk about her anthology “One Woman, One Vote” on August 26. For more information, visit aikenvoicesandvotes.com.
Coming up next at the Center is a free festival celebrating Juneteenth or Freedom Day, a federal holiday that marks the date in 1865 when African Americans in Texas finally got the news about emancipation. Filling Founders Park next to the Center will be a host of exhibits, vendors and musical performances. Small group tours of the Center will also be offered on June 18 during festival hours from noon to 3.
Although the Juneteenth celebration is free and open to the public, the program officially kicks off a five-year Capital Campaign to assist in finishing the education exhibits at the museum. Please consider a generous donation. Visit caahac.org/Juneteenth for more information.