City, nonprofit make plans to restore, preserve S.C. civil rights landmark

COLUMBIA -- The little, white house and its boarded-up guest house around back have a story to tell.

A story of civil rights leaders like Thurgood Marshall and other attorneys, gathered around a kitchen table in the 1950s and 1960s, strategizing on how to improve school conditions for black students.

And the story of Modjeska Monteith Simkins, a Columbia native, school teacher and organizer of the South Carolina NAACP, who put up black leaders in her guest house because they couldn't stay in "whites-only" hotels.

That story has a better chance of being heard now that a private company, BlueCross BlueShield of S.C., has paid about $45,000 for Simkins' house, which was foreclosed on earlier this year and in need of repairs. Its guest house had become a haven for the homeless.

The city and a nonprofit historic foundation have pledged to maintain and run it.

"Who knows what would have happened to that home?" said Donna Thorne, chief public relations officer for BlueCross BlueShield of S.C. "We wanted to make sure it was saved."

The Marion Street home and its guest house will undergo renovations so they can be used for meeting space by community groups. They may also be used for exhibit space, showcasing Columbia's role in the civil rights movement, said Robin Waites, director of Historic Columbia Foundation.

Waites, BlueCross BlueShield and city of Columbia leaders are working out a plan to deed the house to the city, which owns several other historic properties, and to make the nonprofit foundation the house's steward, in charge of maintaining and staffing it.

Waites said she'll likely need about $60,000 annually to maintain the home.

"We will ask (city) staff to take a look at the budget and see where we might find the money," said City Councilman Sam Davis. "BlueCross BlueShield saved the house. Now, it's up to the city (and others) to maintain it."

Early estimates say the house and guest house need roughly $250,000 in repairs, Waites said. The city and BlueCross BlueShield will pay for it.

Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said the city may be able to use liquor rebate money it gets annually from the state for the project.

Local historic properties are not money makers and are costly to maintain.

For example, the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home, South Carolina's only presidential home, closed to the public last year because it needed $1 million in repairs. Richland County has since has pledged the money.

Simkins' house has had an equally rocky time with funding.

About six years ago, a nonprofit was formed, the Collaborative for Community Trust, to preserve her home.

Fundraising to run and maintain it was done by the collaborative's president and CEO, Catherine Fleming Bruce, who secured about $170,000 in city funding since 2004.

Bruce and the collaborative ran into serious trouble early this year because they owed more than $36,000 on a $51,517 bank loan taken out in 2003 for renovations to the house, according to court records.

Several City Council members have been critical of Bruce, who repeatedly requested additional money from the city repeatedly but did not provide the necessary documents for her most recent request and did not return phone calls from council members who offered to help her raise funds, council members said.

Efforts to reach Bruce on Monday were unsuccessful.

Cleveland Sellers, the collaborative's vice president, would not comment on Bruce's performance but said he and other board members are pleased the house will be preserved and will continue to be open to the public.

"We are grateful and pleased," Sellers said. "We want more citizens of Columbia and visitors to study and learn about civil rights, and we hope they can do some of that at the Modjeska Simkins House," Sellers said.