Until two weeks ago, I’d never heard of the Orangeburg Massacre on February 8, 1968. Maybe you haven’t either, but we should have.
For most of my life, a week-long family trip to Folly Beach, South Carolina has been a summer pastime. This year was no different. Before leaving last weekend, I googled Black history stops along the way, something I’ve started doing before trips in recent years (like last month at Harper’s Ferry). Without fail, I find something I can’t believe I didn’t know.
Seeing, smelling, and feeling a place cements it in my memory and forces me to wrestle with its implications.
This time, Orangeburg jumped to the surface. Most years we take Highway 178 through Orangeburg, a town of nearly 14,000 about 75 miles northwest of Charleston. We sometimes stop for a fast food lunch, and I even spent the night there once as a kid. But, as with most pieces of Black history in the South, I knew nothing more.
Despite its small size, Orangeburg is home to two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — Claflin University and South Carolina State University. Like other Southern cities with an HBCU, the town became an anchor of protests during the civil rights era as students and locals led boycotts, picketing, marches, and sit-ins. For example, in September 1963, over a four-day period more than 900 protesters were arrested during demonstrations for desegregation and job opportunities.
Tensions bubbled to the surface again on February 5, 1968 at the local bowling alley, four years after Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination in public accommodations. All-Star Triangle Bowl’s owner, Harry Floyd, refused entry to several Black students that night. They left peacefully but returned the following night with 300 protesters. They were met in the parking lot with more than 100 law enforcement officers. After a window was broken and students began moving toward police, they began beating them with batons. Seven students and one officer were hospitalized.
Two days later, students held an even larger demonstration on SCSU’s campus, now under lockdown. Governor McNair called in National Guard troops to support local law enforcement to ensure the protest didn’t become a riot. Students had set a grass fire and fire fighters moved in a put it out with law enforcement guarding them. Then, in the chaos of a moment, some officers claimed to hear gunfire and fired their guns into the protesters. In the mayhem, three male students — Sammy Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith — were killed. 27 others were wounded, many shot in the back, side or legs as they fled. All were unarmed.
In the months that followed, the federal government forced the bowling alley to allow Black customers and charged nine officers with shooting the protesters. The state charged one protester, Cleveland Sellers, with inciting a riot. All nine officers were acquitted, but Sellers was found guilty and sentenced to a year of hard labor. He was pardoned 25 years later.
This history rolled through my mind as our Honda Odyssey rolled into the All-Star Bowling Triangle parking lot yesterday on our way home. Closed in 2007, the alley and surrounding shopping center appear frozen in time — metaphorically falling by the wayside as society moved on. Weeds grow through cracks in the barren parking lot where students were beaten 52 years ago. All that remains of its sign by the street is a white metal triangle frame that rests above rusted out orange letters that say “Bowling.” A look through the window reveals the lanes intact but furniture scattered and several ceiling tiles laying on the blue and black checkerboard floor. Seven bowling balls still rest on display in the glass front counter. Despite being on the National Historic Register, no sign explains what transpired in this parking lot.
I told the story to the kids, snapped a few pictures, and started back onto the road. But often at places like this, we stumble across something else that demonstrates the complicated history of the South. This visit was no different. We pulled into a nearby a Hardee’s for a bathroom break. I looked up at the street name: John C. Calhoun Drive. In a town with two HBCUs and a mostly Black population, a main thoroughfare is named after the former vice president and senator who once claimed that the Black race had never in history been “so civilized and improved” as it was under the “fostering care” of slavery. Calhoun was one of slavery’s staunchest defenders in the first half of the 19th century. While he died a decade before the Civil War, he laid the groundwork for South Carolina’s eventual secession.
I returned to Google. It turns out that Orangeburg City Council unanimously voted last month to rename the street and remove a Confederate monument a few blocks away. Like me, you might wonder, if so, why is the street sign still there? I soon found the reason: the Heritage Act of 2000. In a compromise that removed the Confederate flag from the top of the state capitol (a practice that started during the civil rights era), the bill stated that “no street, bridge, structure, park, preserve, reserve, or other public area of the State or any of its political subdivisions dedicated in memory of or named for any historic figure or historic event may be renamed or rededicated.” The law also stipulates that it can’t be changed without a two-thirds majority vote — well above the simple majority required to change other laws.
In a state where legislators often tout local control, it is illegal for local jurisdictions to rename their streets without a supermajority of the state legislature.
It’s almost like they knew time eventually would run out, so they put up extra road blocks just in case. And, South Carolina isn’t alone — several other Southern states have state laws preventing local control over monuments (Georgia’s latest version passed in 2019).
The juxtaposition of these two places is at the heart of our current debate on how we remember the past. As places like All-Star Triangle Bowl fade out of memory, places like John C. Calhoun Street continue to venerate a white supremacist even though local authorities unanimously want to change it.
We’ve let weeds grow over the harsh memories of the past while perpetuating caricatures of White men who fought to keep Black lives in chains.
I’ll never drive through Orangeburg the same. And, when you go on your next trip, I hope you’ll find an Orangeburg to pass through too.
For further reading on the Orangeburg Movement, see the National Register of Historic Places Documentation Form for Orangeburg, from which above account was drawn.