Center for African American History, Art and Culture to hold first public events in Aiken

September 9, 2018

The Center for African American History, Art and Culture will welcome the community Sept. 14-15 with its first public events.

“Art at the Center: Defeat Hate,” for children ages 5-18, will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14.

On Saturday, Sept. 15, from 6 to 9 p.m., the center will recognize two outstanding African-Americans at the “Celebration of Aiken’s African American Excellence.”

The weekend’s theme is “Our Story.” All events are free. The center is at 120 York St. N.E.

“It’s a way to say, hey, we’re here,” said Dr. Melencia Johnson, a member of the center’s board of directors and a sociology professor at USC Aiken. “We don’t have exhibits yet, but we’re here. We’re open.”

Friday’s event for children takes its name from the NAACP’s 2018 theme, “Defeat Hate – Vote,” Johnson said.

At the event, children can create arts and crafts at stations staffed by volunteers. Children who complete all of the stations will receive a prize, Johnson said.

At the station staffed by volunteers with the NAACP, children will create a coloring book featuring historical NAACP figures.

“They can color while the volunteers tell them about each person’s history,” Johnson said. “It’s fun and educational, and we’re slipping in some learning.”

The arts and crafts volunteer will help the children design jewelry from noodles.

Other volunteer groups will include the Concerned Ministers Fellowship, the Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church, Friendship Baptist Church and the Aiken Chapter of the Links Inc.

“We wanted to have a space where kids can come and be free and hang out,” Johnson said.

The event is open to everyone, and no reservations are required, Johnson said.

The “Celebration of Aiken’s African American Excellence” will recognize two community residents.

“We’re awarding two members of the community who have been integral in pushing the center forward,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a surprise.”

Dr. Bobby Donaldson, an associate professor of history at USC Columbia, will be the speaker.

“He will speak on the importance of preserving African-American history and is bringing down a few other people from the S.C. African American Heritage Foundation,” Johnson said. “We’re really excited to have him. It’s going to be our first lecture.”

An Augusta native, Donaldson is a scholar of Southern history and African-American life and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to USC’s website.

The event will feature a jazz musician, works by local artists, a silent auction, light hors d’oeuvres and tours of the building.

Space is limited, and attendance is by RSVP only. To check availability, email aikenculturalcenter@gmail.com or call 803-226-0269.

The center’s mission to preserve, educate and celebrate African-American history and culture aligns with the building’s origins, Johnson said.

The building was built in the late 19th century for the Immanuel Institute, founded by Rev. W. R. Coles, a Presbyterian missionary, as a school for children of freed enslaved African-Americans.

Through the years, the building has housed a number of educational institutions, including Coles Academy, Coles Normal and Industrial School, Immanuel Institute, Jackson School, Andrew Roberts Institute and St. Gerard Catholic School, according to the center’s website.

In 2004, a few local community leaders recognized that this historic landmark should be preserved and used to capture the rich history of Aiken’s African-American community, according to the site.

“It was created to serve as an educational institution initially, so we want to continue to fulfill that goal to educate the surrounding community,” Johnson said.

The building’s exterior has been restored to its appearance in the late 1800s. Renovations on the first floor are complete and have begun on the second floor, but exhibits are not in place. When complete, exhibits will include an interactive presentation on the Middle Passage, the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to North and South America.

The center also wants to display artifacts and memorabilia from local residents, Johnson said.

“We’d like for people to offer items they might have at home to tell the history and stories of African-Americans in Aiken County,” she said. “We want the center to be a learning experience for children and adults. We want to see buses in the parking lot every single day.”

On Sunday, Sept. 16, from 3 to 5 p.m., the center will play host to an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NAACP Aiken County Branch.

For more information, visit aikenculturalcenter.org.

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