The All-Star Bowling Lanes were built as part of a shopping center development in the City of Orangeburg, South Carolina during the early 1960s. Constructed in stages, the A&P Shopping Center replaced three houses along East Russell Street. The A&P Store and laundry were constructed between 1960 and 1961. Subsequently, another section was built including the bowling alley and five smaller stores which formed the “L” shape of the A&P Shopping Center. These new stores connected with the rear of a furniture store that was built in the late 1950s. On Saturday, March 3, 1962, the All-Star Bowling Lanes held its grand opening. In the beginning, All-Star Bowling, Inc. was the company that built and operated the bowling alley. They had other alleys in Anderson, Florence, and Gaffney. The sixteen-lane bowling alley was fully automated and even had a nursery, conference room, and snack counter.
When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, most of Orangeburg’s public accommodations soon desegregated. However, the management at the only bowling alley in town refused to do so. The owner of the All Star Bowling Lanes, Harry Floyd, claimed his bowling alley was exempt from desegregation laws since it was private property. The bowling alley is situated between two schools; South Carolina State and Claflin College. S.C. State, made up of mostly poor and middle class black families, was a cultural world apart from the white neighborhoods surrounding it. For years, this segregationist policy infuriated local African-Americans in Orangeburg as well as students at both schools.
In 1966, S.C State students were turned away from All-Star Bowling. When the American Legion’s Little World Series was held in Orangeburg during 1967, a team with African-American members was turned away. Local black leaders and the white business community unsuccessfully tried to convince Floyd to desegregate the same year. Harry Floyd argued the desegregation would offend his long-time clientele. Appeals went as far as to the U.S. Justice Department, but ultimately failed to achieve anything since that agency was unsure of the status of the alley under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Local black leaders argued that All-Star Bowling Lanes was covered under interstate commerce since it contained a lunch counter. From 1964 to 1968, many of the students from S.C. State and Claflin became involved in the civil rights movement and were determined to turn the tide of racism within their small town. By early 1968, tensions were reaching a boiling point. John Stroman, a black S.C. State senior from Savannah, Georgia, had a passion for bowling. On Monday, February 5, 1968, a group of roughly 40 students led by senior John Stroman, entered All-Star Bowling Lanes to protest its whites-only policy before Harry Floyd was able to bolt the door locked. Every time the students touched a salt shaker or napkin holder, Floyd would throw it in the trash. When they deposited money in the jukebox, he unplugged it and gave them their money back. After the students refused to leave, Floyd called the police and demanded they be arrested for trespassing. Orangeburg police chief Roger Poston, who was convinced the situation could become explosive, ordered the bowling alley closed for the night. The students went peacefully back to campus, but vowed to return.
The news of Floyd’s refusal spread across both campuses like wildfire. The next night, Tuesday, February 6, John Stroman and a group of students returned to the bowling alley for a second protest. This time, however, they found the doors shut and locked. Instead of encountering Harry Floyd, the group of young protestors was met in the parking lot by a group of heavily armed law enforcement officers, some carrying three-foot-long wooden riot batons. The centerpiece for this show of force was South Carolina’s top law enforcement officer, J. P. “Pete” Strom, a heavy-set, no nonsense authoritarian who was often compared to legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, both for his bulldog-appearance and autocratic reputation. Strom was known throughout South Carolina as “Mr. Law Enforcement.” Although the state’s white leaders praised Strom for showing what they considered restraint in some civil rights demonstrations, most blacks viewed Strom as a dangerous and arbitrary symbol of white police power. After speaking with Strom, Stroman asked the female students to go home and advised all remaining protestors to leave if they did not want to be arrested.
Fifteen students chose to stay, hoping their arrests would compel the issue’s resolution in court. As they were led away to awaiting patrol cars, an angry crowd gathered outside of the bowling alley. More students arrived, some armed with bricks obtained from a nearby construction site. An intervention by S.C. State’s Dean of Students secured the release of the jailed students, including Stroman who returned to the crowd in the parking lot. The scene was calm until a fire truck, ordered by Orangeburg police chief Roger Poston, arrived. A newcomer to the city, Poston was unaware that local students had been sprayed with firehoses at a 1960 sit-in. At this point, a sense of fear and betrayal swept across the crowd of students despite requests from Stroman, who climbed onto a car to calm fellow demonstrators.
With at least 50 (some say as many as 100) law enforcement officers present, both Poston and Stroman made repeated pleas for calm, but it was too late; the seeds of a riot had been sown. Several hundred students rallied, and a surge of angry students pressed against the bowling alley’s storefront, yelling insults and hurling fists. State troopers responded swiftly with broad-scale beatings. One student’s skull was cracked, and reports from that night bear witness to at least two female students being held down and beat by officers. Wounded and enraged, the students retreated, breaking out car windows and damaging four buildings during their retreat. Before sunrise, fifteen students had been arrested and at least ten students and one police officer were treated for injuries.
As the word spread around town about the bowling alley unrest, tensions quickly escalated. Expecting looting and violence, some store owners decided to arm themselves. South Carolina Governor Robert McNair, supposedly one of the more moderate governors of the Deep South, insisted “Black Power” leaders were inciting student unrest and called in the National Guard. A barrage of troops and tanks lined the downtown streets to intimidate students and squelch the anticipated violence. Cleveland Sellers, a native South Carolinian and civil rights activist, joined the student protestors. After graduating from Howard University in 1967, Sellers returned to South Carolina intending to teach students about black history. His activism, however, put him on the government’s radar and earned him the reputation as a “black militant.”
On Wednesday, February 7, 1968, classes were canceled as students met to plan a protest march for later that day. Permits were sought but denied by the mayor and the City of Orangeburg. Instead, white officials and businessmen came to the S.C. State campus, but their lack of support – in some cases obvious disdain – further fueled the students’ dissent. Together with their professors, the student body compiled a formal list of grievances and presented them at City Hall late that afternoon. The list asked for twelve items, a third of which focused on injustices within the local medical community. For example, item five asked that “the Orangeburg Medical Association make a public statement of intent to serve all persons on an equal basis, regardless of race, religion, or creed.” Item nine asked leaders to “encourage the Orangeburg Regional Hospital to accept the Medicare Program.” Along with All-Star Bowling Lanes, Orangeburg Regional Hospital remained segregated despite federal law.
As the hours progressed, both S.C. State University and Claflin College were placed on lockdown. The following day, February 8, 1968, roughly 120 National Guardsmen, state troopers, and local police had amassed at the edges of South Carolina State’s campus. An additional 450 troops were stationed downtown. The officers were issued shotguns loaded with double-ought buckshot, used to kill deer and other large game. As darkness fell, students at S.C. State gathered on a hill at the school’s entrance, holding hands and singing. At 10 PM, they lit a bonfire. Thirty minutes later, firefighters moved in to douse the blaze, backed by just under 70 officers. The students began to retreat, but someone threw a banister or a rock, hitting highway trooper David Shealy in the face. Shealy collapsed to the ground bleeding. Another officer fired his gun in the air as a warning shot. Later claiming they feared the shot had been fired by a student, eight other officers and city policeman opened fire. The onslaught lasted about 15 seconds. Between 100-150 students were present. Of these, 31 young black people were shot, three of whom died. Two of the victims were Samuel Hammond, Jr. and Henry Smith, ages 18 and 19, who were students at South Carolina State. The third victim was Delano Middleton, a 17-year-old senior at nearby Wilkinson High School. Middleton was not involved in the protests. His mother worked as maid on campus, and he often stopped by there on his way home from basketball practice. Middleton was shot seven times, once in the heart. Smith, an ROTC student, was shot three times including in the neck. Hammond was a freshman from Barnwell who was studying to be a teacher. He was shot in the back and died on the floor of Orangeburg’s segregated hospital. Also killed was the unborn child of Louise Kelly Cawley, one of the women beaten during the protest at All-Star Bowling. Cawley suffered a miscarriage the following week.
The events of February 8th and the days leading up to it have been labeled as the Orangeburg Massacre. The following day, Governor Robert McNair held a press conference in Columbia. McNair had been elected a year earlier with 99% of the state’s black vote and while he called it “one of the saddest days in the history of South Carolina,” he also degraded the shootings as an “unfortunate incident.” Operating on inaccurate news reports, McNair said the incident occurred off-campus and placed blame on “black power advocates.” Although McNair personally asked the FBI to conduct an investigation the morning after the shootings, he did not mandate a state investigation. Chief Strom was a close colleague of then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and the bureau’s efforts to bring justice have been widely maligned. Strom was employed at the will of McNair, and he was never indicted. In his 2006 autobiography, McNair acknowledges culpability and accepts responsibility for the events of that night.
Cleveland Sellers was shot during the attack and arrest on riot charges. Two-and-a-half years later, he was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. Sellers was pardon in 1993 – nearly 25 years later – after evidence proved he was innocent. In the intervening years, he earned his master’s degree from Harvard and his doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. For eight years he served as the president of Voorhees College, located in his hometown of Denmark, before stepping down in 2016 due to failing health. On the contrary, every law enforcement officer that was involved in the Orangeburg Massacre was acquitted.
South Carolina has never officially investigated the events surrounding the Orangeburg Massacre. Although multiple attempts have been made to open a state investigation and to honor February 8th as an annual day of remembrance, South Carolina’s state legislature has refused to vote on the measure. In 2007, the FBI declined to reopen an investigation as well. Although several governors issued public statements of regret for the shootings and deaths, none of the nine officers involved have received even an informal reprimand. Harry Floyd died in 2002, leaving All-Star Bowling to his son. The bowling alley permanently closed in 2007.
Although the Orangeburg Massacre was the deadliest single incident of the civil-rights era in the Carolinas, it remains relatively obscure. At the time, the shooting was overshadowed by news of Vietnam’s Tet Offensive and the seizure of a U.S. Navy vessel by North Korea and just weeks before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It never garnered the national attention or outrage of Kent State, where Ohio National Guard troops shot and killed four white students in May 1970.
After sitting abandoned for over a decade, The Center for Creative Partnerships, a non-profit organization, acquired the historic bowling alley thanks to a $145,000 donation by an anonymous donor. The non-profit plans to transform the historic bowling alley into the Orangeburg National Center for Justice, in commemoration of the Orangeburg Massacre. The bowling alley is in need of significant roof repairs and mold and asbestos are also a concern. Since the site is on the National Register of Historic Places, the organization has applied for a national preservation grant in African-American history and civil rights. Upon completion, the civil rights bowling alley will feature 14-16 bowling lanes, a museum exhibition and a space for community meetings. The organization hopes the end product will be a modern bowling alley that retains a historic feel.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate your support. Please share the blog with your friends. If you would like to receive the Abandoned Southeast blog in your email, you can sign up below. Also, check out my books that are available through Amazon.