The Center for African American History, Art & Culture: Celebrating a Common History and a Shared Future

In February, Aiken’s Center for African American History, Art & Culture opened to host and celebrate cultural events. The Aiken Cultural Center is housed in a beautiful white wooden structure, sitting at the corner of York Street and Richland Avenue. And while it has an amazing history, its future is one that will serve both those who call Aiken home and those who pass through for a visit.

Quite an African American Story to Tell

Aiken has a rich African American history, unique in many respects. “Aiken County was the only South Carolina county founded after the Civil War. And it was the direct result of African Americans taking advantage of the unique opportunities afforded them during Reconstruction,” said Executive Director of the Center, Jo-Anne Saunders.

The Center for African American History,  Art & Culture: Celebrating a Common History and a Shared Future | Aiken Bella Magazine

Aiken County 125th Anniversary Marker, noting the ten County Commissioners, of whom all but William Peel were African Americans

Of the 10 individuals serving as County Commissioners on March 10, 1871 when Aiken County was established, nine were African Americans (William Peel being the only white founder). Of these, three esteemed men – Prince Rivers, Samuel Lee, and Charles Hayne – are largely credited with the county’s establishment.

Rivers was born into slavery on a plantation near Beaufort but escaped to the North during the war, pursued his education, and became a skilled politician. Many credit his hand with drawing the lines of today’s Aiken County – specifically, the seizure of large portions of land from the adjacent Edgefield and Barnwell Districts.

Charles Hayne was a mulatto tailor, politician, and eventual Postmaster. He fought for establishment of Aiken County, and served as a Senator in the Reconstruction government. When South Carolina voted out the black-led government in Columbia in 1876, Hayne remained as a council member for two years as the only man of color among an otherwise all-white council. He was considered an excellent Postmaster. Aiken’s downtown Hayne Avenue is named after him.

Need for African American Schools

In the mid-1800s, Aiken served as a health resort for those suffering from various lung diseases. Aiken’s elevation – 565 feet above sea level – and its sandy soils which quickly absorbed rain, offered relief to many. Among those who came to Aiken for health reasons are two individuals who had a profound impact on the lives of Aiken residents.

The Center for African American History,  Art & Culture: Celebrating a Common History and a Shared Future | Aiken Bella Magazine

Aiken County’s Founding Fathers: Prince Rivers, Charles Hayne, and Samuel Lee

The first of these was Martha Schofield, a young Quaker from Pennsylvania, who came to Aiken shortly after the Civil War to recover from a serious illness, thought to have been either tuberculosis or malaria. During the war, she helped assist and educate individuals escaping slavery or newly freed. Once here, she quickly realized there was a tremendous need to educate Aiken’s former slaves, many of whom had never attended school or been taught to read. She founded Aiken’s Schofield Normal and Industrial School in 1868. (The term “normal” referred to the typical reading, writing, and arithmetic curriculum. The term “industrial” referred to education in trade crafts.)

The second individual who had a profound educational impact was Reverend William R. Coles, who came to Aiken for his wife’s health. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, he  was soon approached by the Board of Missions for Freedmen about establishing a school. In 1882, land was purchased to house a school, church and dormitory. In 1890, he founded the Immanuel Institute at 120 York Street, which now houses the Center for African American History, Art & Culture. 

In the late 1870s, the first donations for the Immanuel School came from Vincent Green and his mother, both former slaves. The school’s mission was to “elevate the Negro race to that plane of civilization attainable through the education of the head, the hand and the heart.”

Enrollment in the Immanuel Institute peaked in 1906 with 300 black students, of whom 50 were boarders. The curriculum included academic subjects and religion, as well as arts and music. Students were also educated in industrial skills, to prepare them for work in industrial settings. The school closed briefly upon Coles’ retirement in 1909.

Not Only About History

The Center for African American History,  Art & Culture: Celebrating a Common History and a Shared Future | Aiken Bella Magazine

Original Facade of the 1890 Immanuel Institute Building

A tour of the Immanuel Institute building reveals incredible architectural detail. The front door now enters into a one-story foyer, but in the original building, it was a two-story atrium. Bill McGhee, of SITEC, the general site contractor, commented, “You can see on the floor where the original atrium walls stood. You can also see the original wood flooring, now visible after removing layers of tile from the many uses of this building through the years. Many of us remember when it served as an auto parts store. We are planning to leave the ceiling structures uncovered, to allow visitors to appreciate the construction details of the original building. I love being part of restoring this beautiful historic structure. It seems like we’re returning it to its original use – to serve as a place of education.”

Aiken Together Initiative

The Aiken Cultural Center is part of the local Aiken Together initiative, the goal of which is to open three unique museums within Aiken to celebrate its rich history while offering educational experiences to young and old, natives and visitors.

The SRS construction boom and influx of workers has left an indelible mark upon Aiken. Although the site no longer produces material for nuclear weapons, the Site continues to serve national security interests by safely storing plutonium and other materials. The legacy of the Savannah River Site includes the large population of engineers and scientists who came here to construct the site and those who operated its facilities to help win the Cold War.

The other two facilities in the initiative are the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum, and the Savannah River Site Foundation Museum. The Visitors Center and Train Museum is a recently constructed facility on the site of Aiken’s 1899 train depot, which had been left to decay and was eventually torn down. (The original depot facility, built in the vicinity of Hayne Avenue before the railroad bed was cut into the hillsides along Park Avenue, was later destroyed by fire.) The coming of the railroad to Aiken in 1833 is widely recognized as the event that established Aiken as a city by affording transportation of both trade goods and tourists, among them the Winter Colonists who established Aiken’s equestrian industry.

 The Savannah River Site Foundation Museum recognizes establishment of the SRS as a nuclear weapons production facility in 1950. The Museum sits in another Aiken historical building, the Dibble Memorial Library (Lawyer Henry Dibble, who moved to Aiken in 1883 for his health, helped establish the planting of the beautiful live oaks lining South Boundary Avenue, and his will funded construction of the building that now houses the SRS Museum.)

Education and Entertainment

Jo-Anne Saunders, Cultural Center Executive Director


The first phase of the Aiken Cultural Center’s renovation was accomplished with $1.2 million provided through City and State grants, as well as pledges from community leaders. After the building was purchased, it was brought up to current electrical and fire codes. On the outside, the facility was returned to its original façade, including replacing the original porch, where horse-drawn carriages conveyed students and teachers. Approximately $1.2 million more is required to complete the Center’s renovation to modern museum standards.

What Makes a Tourist Attraction?

What makes a tourist attraction? Is it a single aspect of a city that draws others in? Or is it a spectrum of activities that appeal to a broad cross-section of individuals that prompt them to visit a location?

The Center for African American History,  Art & Culture: Celebrating a Common History and a Shared Future | Aiken Bella Magazine

Recently Renovated Exterior of Center for African American History, Art and Culture

 When Hurricane Matthew hit the east coast in early October, Aiken served as an evacuation location for many people from coastal Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The feedback they offered was that they found a lot of different things to do in our small city. And the Center for African American History, Art & Culture will ultimately serve as yet another venue to attract today’s and tomorrow’s tourists with a nod to Aiken’s storied past.

“We are working through our Aiken Together campaign to raise funds for this next phase. I believe all of us benefit from learning the lessons of our shared past. My goal is that the Cultural Center will serve all Aiken visitors and residents. There is a common history and a common future that awaits us,” Saunders noted.

For more information, visit the Aiken Center for African American History, Art & Culture website at, email, or call 803-226-0269.

Karen Guevara is a retired executive from the Department of Energy, where she most recently served as a Savannah River Site senior manager. She spent much of her federal career in Washington, D.C., including a stint in the White House Office of Management and Budget. She has wisely decided to remain in Aiken where she is an active Rotarian, recreational golfer, choir singer, and budding writer.