Aspirations have always been part Columbia’s Historic Waverly, a center of South Carolina’s civil rights movement. Two men, James Baker and Frank Houston, now say it’s time to again turn dreams to reality and restore Waverly, but it remains a struggle.
By Joseph Crevier
March 29, 2017
In Historic Waverly, once one of Columbia’s most vibrant minority neighborhoods, Frank Houston and James Baker dream of a place where everybody knows everybody. Neighbors in their front porch rocking chairs talk over coffee while kids play ball in the street. Race, money and stature carry no worth.
And most important, it’s a community again.
“When we come together to develop culture within the neighborhood, we can see a lot of attraction drawn to the area,” says Houston, president of the Historic Waverly Neighborhood Council.
To Houston, that culture means new, enthusiastic residents. It also means attracting tourists to the neighborhood that was central in the fight against segregation.
But Houston’s predecessor as neighborhood council president, Doris Hildebrand fought the same battle for over two decades until her death in January 2015. Despite being nicknamed “The Mayor” of Historic Waverly, her efforts to restore the neighborhood had limited success.
With more than 130 properties considered historically significant, Waverly was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 with a push from Hildebrand. But 24 years later, a city study found that more than 40 percent of the properties had been torn down.
The money Waverly received during Hildebrand’s tenure only paid for informational signs outside some of Waverly’s historic landmarks, such as the Edwin Russell House. During Houston’s presidency, Waverly has received about $1,600 in local and state money, which has paid for signs labeling the neighborhood’s entrances.
Houston says it’s not for lack of trying, but because, he says, Waverly has been forgotten.
“The city is growing in so many areas, and I think the focus gets tilted toward one particular area of town, and when that happens everything else around seems to get lost; they’re not on the table anymore,” Houston says.
The challenge is finding money to restore the remaining buildings, many in the craftsman or American square styles. About a quarter of Waverly’s houses are vacant, and almost half aren’t owned by those living in them, according to census figures.
Houston and the neighborhood association now are putting part of their faith on a new protection district created by the city last fall. The city must now approve demolitions and many other design changes.
“We’ve got rundown houses that we’d like to see repaired; we’ve got vacant properties that we’d like to see suitable residents build on, just to bring the community back to the historic standard that it used to have,” says Baker, 75. The community historian has lived in Waverly most of his life.
Often referred to as “Columbia’s first suburb,” Historic Waverly was created after the Civil War but did not become segregated until the early 1900s. In 1913, Columbia annexed the 14-square-block neighborhood that includes Allen University and is bounded by Gervais, Harden and Taylor streets and Millwood Avenue.
About one in four homes in Waverly has a vacancy notice, including this three-story home on Heidt Street that still is in livable condition. A vacancy notice, usually posted by the landlord, requires the current tenant to leave for either nonpayment or remodeling. This house is currently under remodel.The neighborhood thrived despite the Jim Crow era, when race relations were tense. Many residents were vital to the civil rights movement, said John Sherrer, director of cultural resources at Historic Columbia.
But by the mid-2000s, the former home to Manhattan nuclear bomb project chemist Edwin Russell; Dr. Matilda Evans, who founded Columbia’s first black hospital; and civil rights lawyer Matthew Perry Jr., who became the state’s first black federal district court judge, was better known for crime.
“We were infested with prostitution, drugs, that kind of thing,” Baker said.
Much of the attention focused on the Town-N-Tourist Motel at Lady and Harden streets that, when it opened in the 1960s, was a center for civil rights activities and a place where prominent African-Americans stayed, according to various accounts. But by the 1990s, news reports said it had become a center for drug use and prostitution.
The motel was demolished in 2002 and is now the Waverly Family Practice and Waverly Women’s Health Center.
Houston and Baker say there has been a noticeable decrease in crime, as does Columbia police officer Kevin Schmidt, who patrols the neighborhood from time to time.
In 1999, the city established what then-Police Chief Charles Austin called the first U.S. residential police koban on Lady Street. Kobans, common in Japan, have officers both work and live in a community so that they become part of the social fabric and residents feel more comfortable reporting issues.
Residents also can use the koban for community meetings. In reviewing the koban (PDF) six years later, the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation said crime had declined since it was created and property values had increased, but that directly crediting the koban for that was difficult.
Today, however, the police department says officers are rarely there.
Houston hopes that within the next five years his dream will become reality. But he also says that sometimes he wonders if he’s fighting the right battle or if anything will ever get done.
“You put so much time and effort into something like this and wonder if it’s all worth it. You know, I’m not that young,” said Houston, 76.
But then, Houston said, he remembers the ultimate goal is to preserve one of South Carolina’s most important pieces of its African-American heritage.