A rare example of a historic home owned by middle-class African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era will reopen to the public in Columbia this weekend after two years of refurbishment.
The Mann-Simons Site was the home of free blacks and their descendants starting two decades before the Civil War and continuing until the city of Columbia acquired the property in 1970. It has been open to the public as a museum since 1978, but closed in 2014 for an extensive rehabilitation and conversion. It will reopen Saturday as part of the city’s annual Jubilee Festival of Black History & Culture.
Historic Columbia director Robin Waites said the new home has interactive exhibits and artifacts found in a recent archaeological dig at the site. “This used to be set up as a traditional historic house museum with period room settings in each space,” she told South Carolina Radio Network. “We’ve really flipped that around, so it’s really more of a 21st century museum.” In addition to new exhibits inside, outside the home are new “ghost structures,” or white frames erected to show where other buildings sat on the property.
The museum offered a special early peek on Thursday to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and other guests. The site at the corner of Richland and Marion streets in downtown Columbia will open to the general public again as part of the 38th Annual Jubilee: Festival of Black History & Culture. The event is hosted each year by Historic Columbia and is a celebration of the city’s black history and culture.
Formers slave Ben DeLane and his wife Celia Mann moved to the site around 1843. Their family steadily rose to prominence among Columbia’s African-American business community in the next five decades, starting several successful ventures like a lunch counter and grocery store. They also eventually acquired neighboring properties and built other residences there that were rented out to immigrant tenants. The present home at the site dates back to at least 1883, but was likely built earlier than that.
Mayor Benjamin said the family represented an entrepreneurial spirit that defines the “American Dream” — and even the city itself — at a time when government policies and racism placed African-Americans at a disadvantage. “They would live out their own very unique interpretation of the American Dream through challenges of slavery and racism, Jim Crow, through hardship adversity their family fought to maintain ownership of this home. What they left behind is more, however, than just a house. It’s a legacy.”
Among those in attendance Thursday was Cleveland Smith, a fifth-generation descendant who now works as an administrator in Richland County schools. “We want this site to be a center for learning,” he said. “As an educator, I know how important it is to have field studies. Students can come here and learn about the history of Columbia, as well as the part an African-American family has played in the city of Columbia.”