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Turning hate into hope: A new look at what could go inside the Echo Theater in Laurens

As part of the theater/museum's educational component, the Echo Project is doing an "oral histories" initiative.
Published: May. 13, 2022 at 3:45 AM EDT
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GREENVILLE, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - It’s a story of turning hate into hope, and learning from the mistakes of the past.

You may be familiar with the Echo Theater in Laurens, a formerly segregated building, which is being remodeled into a multicultural museum of education--to help heal racial divides created in Laurens County, and the Palmetto State as a whole.

FOX Carolina has followed this story from the beginning, and covered it all the way through signature events like the grand reopening of the theater, which happened almost a year ago to the day (May 27, 2021).

Thursday night, we got a first look at ideas for what could actually go inside the theater in terms of exhibits.

It’s all part of the process of gathering information from the community to help fill the space. The Echo Project is currently in the middle of its “Oral Histories” initiative, where they’re interviewing real people in the area who were affected by what went on at the Redneck Shop, the Confederate memorabilia store located inside the former Echo Theater.

“He was describing it, and it was like ‘oh god,’ you know. You’re thinking like ‘60s, ‘50s, ‘40s,” said recent USC Upstate graduate Barak Singleton.

Singleton, who just had his commencement this past Tuesday, and minored in African American studies, says his final project as a student on behalf of the Echo Theater was life-changing.

“A lot of the time, when you think of history, you view it as a long time ago, but a lot of the people in this story are parents and grandparents,” Singleton told FOX Carolina. “They’re only a generation or two removed from me.”

Barak studied under and took courses taught by Dr. Nicholas Gaffney, an African American studies teacher who was tapped by the Echo Project to help them with the Oral Histories mission. In turn, Gaffney enlisted the help of students like Barak, as part of their final course project. We visited him at his offices Thursday morning.

“We’re really trying to understand the nature of the trauma, if you will, that a place like that--the Redneck Shop--created for people living in that community,” Gaffney told FOX Carolina.

The Redneck shop, housed inside the former Echo Theater, was a hub or organized white supremacy. It only shut its doors in 2012.

“A lot of this isn’t even really being looked at through the historical lens,” Gaffney said. “In many ways this is the beginning of the contemporary period.”

Up until 2007, the Redneck Shop was still hosting full regalia Klu Klux Klan meetings. It was also a headquarters for the American Nazi party. On the walls inside the building, you can still see faded paint of a swastika flag--right next to the red, white, and blue of the American flag.

“The collective goal is just to create an opportunity for viewers, people who are looking at this material in whatever shape it takes, have a chance to begin to build empathy,” Dr. Gaffney said, when asked how they’d go about changing hearts and minds, especially considering the connotation the building still holds.

He, and students like Singleton, are just one part of the larger effort, getting out into the community, conducting interviews, and hearing firsthand from people whose voices have not been heard before.

In the end, they say the videos and audio of these oral histories, describing what it was like having the Redneck Shop nearby, will be key parts of filling up the exhibit space.

“There are things like calling cards, which the Klan would leave at someone’s house as a form of intimidation,” Gaffney said. “One of the things we’ve talked about as a concept is--to put that card on display, and then having people sharing their experiences of what it was like receiving a card like that.”

Organizers say this tool of racial reconciliation and healing is something those involved say they hope will connect the story of the Echo Theater to the larger one of the struggle for civil rights and justice.

It’s something Barak says he can’t believe he got to be a part of.

“Decades from now, people will be able to look back and say ‘that’s what was going on at that time.’ They’ll be able to tell the story of those who lived there and lived through that time,” he said.

In a way, he says, they can use the past to help them with the future, so that they may never repeat what happened in Laurens, and in many other racially charged pockets of the state and the country.

He and Gaffney say they hope this ends up being something that will serve as a model for other communities with similarly charged pasts--to take home with them and emulate after viewing.

“It relies on humans. It relies on our memory, and it relies on people being there to listen,” Singleton said.