Drive past the intersection of S. Hudson and W. Washington streets and you’ll see a corner construction zone, giant slabs of concrete ripped up behind a safety barrier.
It’s not much to see right now, but that will change. The space will give way to a plaza where a statue of Lila Mae Brock will stand, welcoming visitors to Unity Park.
The bronze statue will honor Brock’s contributions to Greenville, particularly to the Southernside community that she served for years as a missionary before her death in 1996. It’s also recognition of the Black men and women — like Brock — who helped make Greenville what it is today.
Greenville artist Charles Pate Jr. works on his sculpture of Lila Mae Brock. The statue, now finished, will go in a plaza near Unity Park. (Photo: Charles Pate Jr.)
The city commissioned the 7-foot statue to artist Charles Pate Jr. in 2019 with a project budget of $85,000-$100,000.
The statue will honor Brock’s memory and represent peace and unity, said Katie Skoloff, a member of Greenville’s Arts in Public Places Commission.
Brock isn’t the only figure to be memorialized in public art. A piece in honor of Josh White, years in the making, is waiting to be installed downtown on Hammond Street.
The work will commend the Greenville native who was an innovator in the Piedmont blues music style. A citizens committee spearheaded the project with assistance from the city, which contributed $25,000 in matching funds.
A three-panel rendering by artist Joe Thompson will honor blues artist Josh White. It will be installed downtown on Hammond Street. (Photo: David Vickery)
The Brock and White statues are only part of a handful of Greenville’s 70-plus public art installations to pay homage to the city’s Black heritage, and Skoloff said the city is looking for more ways to explore diversity and history through art..
“We’re excited that this Josh White piece is timely, and we are seeking out more pieces that celebrate diversity and bringing more artists to do that,” Skoloff said.
State Rep. Chandra Dillard (D – Greenville) is dreaming even bigger.
Pursuing ‘wholistic’ history
Dillard, a Greenville native, has always loved history. To know where you’re headed, you have to know where you come from, she believes.
“I think what the city is doing is great, but I guess if we’re going to go further, faster, we probably need some dedicated attention to this,” Dillard said.
Dillard would like to see a more wholistic approach — recognition for the people, and places, that have helped shape the city.
“I think Greenville is changing so fast and because of that, we often have our eye on the future. It would pay to look at our history,” she said. “I think it’s important because without that, we can’t have an appreciation for where we are now.”
Mayor Knox White told The News he has asked Dillard to help guide the city as it explores ways to “recognize our full history.”
“Unity Park will also provide a platform for telling some amazing stories of the Southernside neighborhood,” White said in a text message. “Sometimes the stories don’t paint a good picture of Greenville racial relations in the past. But they are true stories we all need to hear as we move forward.”
Dillard is glad to help the city, she said. She’s also happy to know White and City Council are on board with her goals.
“In this time of equity and history, we need to be able to portray a more wholistic story of Greenville’s history,” Dillard said.
‘A part of our history’
In addition to ideas for new public art, Dillard and the city are working to identify historic places that could be preserved or memorialized.
The challenge lies in preserving a history that is rapidly disappearing.
Parking lots and corporate offices have sprung up in place of old buildings in Greenville’s historic Black business district, once a thriving hub of social and business spaces only two blocks off of Main Street.
A segregated train station that once marked the district is gone, replaced now by a SunTrust building.
Only two major buildings in the area remain intact: the John Wesley United Methodist Church and the Working Benevolent Temple and Professional Building, which now holds office space.
Furman professor Brandon Inabinet worries the city will continue to lose sites like these if it doesn’t take concrete steps for preservation.
“As the city continues to gentrify, there are a lot of places like that where we’re losing that sense that downtown was the core of those conflicts, those questions about equality and justice,” Inabinet said.
Dillard is considering another spot in Greenville’s West End, the historic McClaren Medical Shelter. The registered historic site was just recently moved 54 feet from private to city property at its location on Wardlaw Street for preservation.
To Dillard, preserving what remains is about more than just saving old structures.
“It’s not about the buildings,” she said. “It’s about the stories.”
“That’s a part of our history.”
A minority story against a majority current
Some may wonder why an object like a sculpture or a building is so important.
Ask Inabinet, and he’ll say there’s more to it than meets the eye.
“We’re always a creation of the symbols around us. Even if you don’t think it matters, even as we think we’re more than those things, the monuments are always constructing the story we tell about who we are and our past,” Inabinet said.
“There are things you can see, like the Sterling High School monument, that really do help African American people feel like they are part of the community and their history is valued, too. But it is a minority story against a majority current.”
Public art installations and historic preservation have far-reaching effects, Dillard said. They foster an appreciation and help those who lived that history feel appreciated and included.
“The main thing is to honor people who helped build Greenville who normally don’t get recognized,” she said.
Inabinet applauds the works in honor of Brock and White. The city is starting good conversations about its history through public art, he said.
But there’s still plenty of work to do, he thinks.
“There is amazing work being done. But I always think we can’t go fast enough on this sort of thing,” Inabinet said.
Macon Atkinson is the Greenville city watchdog reporter. Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @maconatkinson.
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