It looked like Aiken had been dealt a bad hand last week. Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed $250,000 for the African American Cultural Center currently under construction on York Street.
But an override by the legislature was the ace in their sleeve, a lifeline for more than just the one planned attraction.
“You know, he had vetoed 200-something items and I think they overrode all but about 18,” said Wade Brodie, chair of the Aiken Corporation.
Renovating the old Immanuel Institute Building is the first step in the process of establishing the museum that will serve as a stop on the state’s popular Heritage Corridor.
“I think it’s a nucleus to uplift the community,” said S.C. Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken. He notes that the community also has plans to renovate the old train depot built by the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company and the Schofield School.
The Immanuel Institute was established in the 1890s by the Northern Presbyterian Church to educate the children of freed slaves. For history and grand architecture, there is no more appropriate location for this project in the city of Aiken.
Rev. Doug Slaughter, chair of the committee that is overseeing the project, said the work, now underway, is part of the first phase, which will restore the facade and exterior of the building to its ornate 1890s appearance.
The group had enough to restore the outside — scraping adobe to reveal the original wood, replacing the windows and porch, opening boarded-up portals to let in sunlight and laying a maddening amount of paint. But the group needed assistance with the cost of renovating the interior.
They plan to use audio, video and computer-assisted learning to create an interactive experience that will document the lives of Aiken and South Carolina’s African-American population, their lives and their impact.
One exhibit documenting the Middle Passage experience has already begun construction. The frame of the bow of a ship points to their plans for an educational experience inspired by the Augusta Canal Interpretive Center.
“This is not going to be passive,” Slaughter said. Tours will take visitors through an African village, to a slave ship, across the Atlantic to the port city of Charleston and on into Aiken. The center will also highlight African-American community life in the 19th and 20th centuries, focusing on profiles of daily life, businesses and church traditions.
Aiken County sprang out of the history the center wants to preserve. The town was the site of the famed “Battle of Aiken” between Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War. The skirmish was one of the few defeats suffered by Gen. William T. Sherman on his westward advance.
But the county didn’t even exist until well after the conflict when three of the most powerful African-American leaders of the day conceived it. During Reconstruction, Speaker of the House Samuel J. Lee, State Senator and Aiken Postmaster Charles D. Hayne and Major General Prince R. Rivers noted the growth of the railroad and the population and created Aiken County in 1871 from parts of Orangeburg, Lexington, Edgefield and Barnwell counties.
Thus the center has a unique story to tell, and officials are counting on the planned projects to bring tourism dollars in, too.
“These projects are important for the economic development of the community,” Clyburn said.
In preparing for that, they’ve acquired photographs and historic documents. They’ve enlisted the help of the University of South Carolina-Aiken and its faculty, particularly history professor Maggi Morehouse. Together, they’ve worked to gather oral histories from former students, many of whom are in their 90s.
The organizers toured them through the old building to tap into their memories. The most vivid reactions, according to Aiken City Council member Lessie Price, came when they walked into the rooms that used to be living quarters for the nuns who ran the Immanuel Institute Building.
“They were like children again,” she laughed. “They said, ‘Ooh, we never could come back here!’”
But nostalgia doesn’t buy labor and materials. The entire project is expected to cost almost $2 million. The accommodations tax will bring $360,000 from the city of Aiken over the course of five years. Another $400,000 will come from pledges and donations from individuals and corporations, Brodie said. That leaves a gap of $1.2 million, give or take.
“We don’t know until we price it out, bid it. But I’m guessing that $250,000 will take care of the interior, which includes heat and air and total renovation of the inside,” Brodie said. “We still have a need for an elevator if anyone wants to donate one. We built a shaft for it but we don’t have the equipment.”
After the renovations are complete, Brodie estimates the center will require another $400,000 to $500,000 to design and install the exhibits.
The final goal is to preserve and present the cultural legacy of the African- American Diaspora and to chronicle the contributions of African-Americans to the area.
“Only with the museum will the history of Aiken be complete,” Clyburn said. “Without this the story is incomplete.”
For more information, visit aikenculturalcenter.org.