By Clayton Stairs
Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce/Discover Georgetown
After sitting vacant for more than a decade, a building in the heart of Georgetown’s West End will now serve as a place to celebrate the history and champions of that community, while also providing educational programs.
Dozens gathered Aug. 20 for a reception and grand-opening ceremony for the new West End Heritage Center at 1610 Hawkins St. The event was hosted by the Howard High School Alumni Association, Habitat for Humanity Georgetown County and the City of Georgetown, which all had partnered for renovations, fact-finding and creating displays to bring the center back to life.
The center features photographs and videos of many of the community’s notable citizens, as well as memorabilia from Howard High School and the West End community.
“We have been trying so long to get this building together and make it presentable.” said Janette Becoate-Graham, president of the HHSAA, which owns the building. “It has just been tremendous how the community has come together to finally open this center.”
The building was previously called the Dreamkeepers Center, which was owned by the Committee for African-American History Observances. Before that, it served as a kitchen and band room for the former Howard High School, Georgetown’s black high school during the years of segregation in the second half of the 20th century.
Marilyn Hemingway, president of the Gullah-Geechee Chamber of Commerce, is a former director of CAAHO. She said opening the heritage center will be the beginning of wonderful things happening in the West End.
“It will allow more people to understand the significance of this community’s history,” she said. “This is a good example of a community doing for itself and turning things around.”
Three of the champions of the West End, whose photos are featured on the center’s walls are state Rep. Carl Anderson Sr., Georgetown County Clerk of Court Alma White and Georgetown Mayor Brendon Barber. Also present at the event were other influential African-Americans of Georgetown County, including Georgetown County School Board member Randy Walker, City Councilmember Sheldon Butts, County Council members Lillie Jean Johnson and Everette Carolina, and State Human Affairs Commissioner Harold Jean Brown.
“Today is a great day for Georgetown and the West End,” said Anderson, who was raised on Gilbert Street. “I applaud the committee and the community for making this possible.”
White, who is also a West End native, said she is proud to be one of the people featured on the center’s Community Leaders wall.
“I had the opportunity to grow up in this community and I’m a product of the West End,” she said. “This is the kind of recognition that most people don’t receive until they have passed away, so I am honored to be part of this.”
Barber, who is Georgetown’s first black mayor, told the crowd gathered for the center’s opening that he’s a “Howard High School brat” who can still sing the school’s alma mater. He thanked the HHSAA for creating this center that will “serve as the foundation of the West End community.”
“This (building) has such a purpose, a meaning with this particular community,” the mayor said. “With partnership, with love and passion for community, this center could be the start of what we need to do, not only in this state, but the rest of the country.”
Project coordinator Julie Emory, who is a Coastal Carolina University graduate in the Georgetown RISE Internship Program, and Laura Gassler, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Georgetown County, were also on hand to thank everyone involved and urge people to be a part of the center’s future.
“This is just one successful example of how the community came together to bring the heart back to the West End,” Emory said. “There is so much history here, and we are really only at this point touching on the surface.”
Looking around the center, Gassler said she was amazed it had only been three months since the start of the project. She said she contacted the alumni association after deciding to help revitalize the West End community as part of Habitat’s international mission of neighborhood revitalization.
“I want to thank the Howard High School Alumni Association for allowing Habitat for Humanity to be part of this project and having faith we could pull it off in three months,” Gassler said. “I hope that the former Howard students, alumni and graduates, and community residents enjoy what you are seeing here.”
She said there were several stores that donated product or gave discounts for the West End Heritage Center project, including the Habitat Restore, J&S Carpet and Baker Glass.
“This whole project was a community effort. Everyone came together,” Gassler said. “I just want you to know we are not stopping here.”
The HHSAA is asking the community for donations to continue adding to the center, including kitchen appliances, bathrooms, meeting room equipment and repairs, desks for the office and classroom, landscaping, a permanent sign, lighting, window repairs and more.
Plans for the center include after-school homework help for students, college life workshops, game nights, Black History Month celebrations, and back-in-the-day West End and Howard High School storytelling. Also planned are classes for healthy eating and living, gardening, anti-bullying, basket weaving, Gullah language, dancing, Spanish and basic computer coding.
“Everyone here has a worthy story to share, so I want everyone here, whether you want to give to the museum and tell us about your story about what you went through, or if you’re on the outside just now learning about the champions of the West End, we want to hear you,” Emory said during the ceremony. “If you want to share anything that you don’t think we’ve covered at the center, tell Janette or myself, because we are only going to grow and get bigger from here.”
Anyone who would like to donate or contribute yearbooks, photographs or an interview for the center, can contact Janette Becoate-Graham by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, Julie Emory by email at Dreamkeepers.email@example.com, or call 843-546-5685, ext 2.