Group to restore bowling alley, crucial point of Orangeburg massacre

A closed bowling alley at the center of a 1968 integration protest where state police killed three black students is being turned into a civil rights center

ORANGEBURG, South Carolina — Big plans are afoot for a once segregated bowling alley that remains dark and dusty 54 years after state troopers fired into a crowd of black college students in the murders now known as the name of “Orangeburg massacre”.

After years of neglect, the National Park Service is helping a nonprofit group renovate the All-Star Bowling Lanes, turning it into a fully functional civil rights-themed bowling alley.

On February 8, 1968, South Carolina soldiers fired into crowds on the outskirts of South Carolina State University’s historically black campus, killing three people and wounding 28 others with their bullets. But the shooting remains relatively unknown outside of the state. Compared to the four students killed at Kent State two years later, it’s a footnote in national narratives about the protests of the 1960s.

Planners for the future All-Star Justice Center in Orangeburg hope their renovation project will return the space to the nation’s memories of the civil rights movement.

“What we’re going to have is a major national heritage site for Orangeburg, the state of South Carolina, and the nation,” said Ellen Zisholtz, president of the Center for Creative Partnerships, the nonprofit who bought the long-empty building with about $140,000 from an anonymous donor.

A board of directors comprised of community members, shooting survivors, and civil rights-era activists provide input to shape the project. In their vision, the alleys are lit, the lunch counter is bustling, and every time someone throws a spare or a strike, a screen above the alley provides a fact about civil rights history. A digital display on the wall will name visitors who have pledged to seek racial justice.

A $500,000 grant to kick-start the renovations came from the National Park Service, which added the bowling alley to its African American Civil Rights Network. The grant pays for architectural plans, a new roof, electrical and plumbing repairs and possibly even work on the facade, Zisholtz said.

The council also hopes the project can kick-start a revitalization of Orangeburg, a majority black town of about 13,000 with a poverty rate of 27%.

Zisholtz opened the building’s doors last month to Orangeburg residents who used their phones to light up high scores painted on a side wall and take portraits against the backdrop of empty alleyways. Some described their loved ones’ involvement in the civil rights movement and recalled knocking down bowling pins after bowling became mainstream.

“It’s ancient history,” said Willie Dean Odom, who brought his children and grandchildren. “I just wanted them to be part of the memories, to see what it was like.”

For those who lived through the shooting or grew up in its shadow, the project is a way to continue to demand justice and ensure the murders remain a part of South Carolina history.

In 2003, then governor. Mark Sanford has officially apologized on behalf of the state. At the federal level, the Justice Department indicated as recently as December that it was still reviewing the murders.

But the state has never conducted its own official investigation or offered restitution to the victims. State police said at the time that protesters fired on the soldiers first, though many of the wounded were shot in the back or the soles of their feet. An FBI investigation led to charges against nine soldiers. They said they acted in self-defense, and a jury of 10 whites and two blacks acquitted them.

In the end, the only person convicted was Cleveland Sellers, a black activist who was shot in the shoulder and went to jail for seven months for rioting. He was pardoned 25 years later.

“We must continue to tell the story until justice prevails in South Carolina,” Sellers said. He was invited to speak in the state of South Carolina at a ceremony on Tuesday to dedicate busts of Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith, the three young college students who were killed. Their portraits were installed in a monument on campus, the Smith Hammond Middleton Legacy Plaza.

On Tuesday’s 54th anniversary, the public will have one more chance to set foot in the All-Star Bowling Lanes before renovations begin.

About Jessica J. Bass

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