Originally created 04/28/04

Supporters lobby for black museum



AIKEN - Creating a black history cultural center and museum in Aiken would attract tourists to the city, teach untold stories and add the area to a list of metropolises that already have similar sites, project advocates say.

They've noted such attributes and successful black museums in Augusta and Charleston in recent weeks as they search out funding from local governments.

"We're going to make the cultural center a live entity in the community," said Willar Hightower, a member of the Aiken County Council who supports the project.

He's one of several business and civic leaders who successfully lobbied the council last Tuesday for $360,000 over five years, though council members Jane Vaughters and Dick Smith said the project would only divide the community.

Organizers are still trying to sway the Aiken County Council to give them $500,000 from the proposed extension of the county's 1-cent sales tax that goes before voters in November, a proposal that's being considered.

Building a museum or cultural center dedicated to black history isn't unchartered territory. Several cities in South Carolina and Georgia have them, as do cities across the country such as New Orleans and Baltimore.

"It's like, 'Why shouldn't Aiken tell that story, too?' " said June Murff, a supporter and former president of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce.

Critics of the museum say it's not needed because the Aiken County Historical Museum already has a room that features black history. Mr. Hightower said that's the "white capturing of things they think are important, not blacks capturing what they think are important."

Organizers of the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History in Augusta bought the former school teacher's home in 1987, but it wasn't until 1995 when the city chipped in $750,000 from its special sales tax that it took off, museum director Christine Betts said.

"I think a site such as this in every city is so important," she said. "Many of the children who come here would not otherwise have the opportunity to explore their culture the way they do here."

The Aiken museum could be housed in the Immanuel Training School, a former black school at York Street and Richland Avenue.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.