University of South Carolina receives federal grant for restoration of historic Florence C. Benson School

June 24, 2024

The University of South Carolina, with the aid of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research, will restore and preserve the historic Florence C. Benson Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina, with a new $4.25 million grant from the National Park Service. This allocation is a testament to the importance of preserving civil rights history and telling the critical stories of the movement.

The Historic Preservation Fund’s African American Civil Rights grant will fund:

  • Replacement of the roof and restoration of other exterior envelope components including the historic metal windows
  • Correction of site drainage concerns
  • Installation of sprinkler and fire alarm systems
  • Renovation of restrooms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Replacement of worn interior finishes such as ceilings, lighting, carpet, and paint

Benson School, originally named Wheeler Hill Elementary and also known as the Benson Building, was built as an “equalization school” between 1953 and 1955 in Wheeler Hill, a segregated African American neighborhood in Columbia. Its construction maintained the state government’s “separate but equal” school systems to avoid racial integration. Benson School closed in 1975 and was acquired by the University of South Carolina in 1978. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 as one of the last remnants of the Black residential area and an excellent example of equalization architecture.

“We are extremely pleased that the generous support of the National Park Service will advance the restoration of the historic Florence C. Benson School for future generations,” said Bobby Donaldson, executive director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research.

“We look forward to working with campus architects, preservationists, USC colleagues, students and residents as we continue to document the memories and showcase the histories of families, churches and institutions from the Wheeler Hill district.”

Benson School is one of 39 projects in 16 states and the District of Columbia that will receive part of NPS’s $23.4 million in grant funding in 2024. These projects, spanning various aspects of civil rights history, are part of a national effort to preserve significant sites related to the African American struggle for civil rights.

“South Carolina has always been a focal point for our nation’s history, especially civil rights history. This funding will help continue immortalizing our state’s role in the powerful legacy of African American civil rights,” said Congressman Jim Clyburn.

The NPS previously awarded the Center $6.5 million in a series of grants to facilitate the ongoing preservation of Booker T. Washington High School Auditorium, an equalization addition to the original school, also owned by the university. The auditorium is just blocks from the Benson School. This funding, along with continued support through a partnership with the National Park Service African American Civil Rights Network, is transforming the structure. Both historic sites are currently featured in virtual tours available through a partnership with South Carolina Educational Television. Rehabilitating these structures preserves the story of Black life and education in South Carolina during the Jim Crow era.


About the Center for Civil Rights History and Research

The University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research was founded in November 2015 as an organization dedicated to chronicling South Carolina’s civil rights history. Its cornerstone collection is the congressional papers of James E. Clyburn, the state’s first African American congressman since 1897.

The center’s mission is to amplify the stories of courage and sacrifice that brought the civil right struggle to life. It is trifold: engaging the community in programming to foster advocacy and action; informing curriculum for K-12 and higher education; and serving students, educators, researchers, and the community in identifying and using university collections and resources. This mission underscores the importance of understanding and learning from our civil rights history.