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All-White Clubs Give Ambitious South Carolina City an Image Problem

May 31, 1987|MICHAEL DOBBS | The Washington Post

COLUMBIA, S.C. — "The future has arrived," declares a rich baritone voice, recognizable from Coca-Cola ads. A shot of a bronzed executive swinging a golf club is spliced between scenes of contented workers and happy schoolchildren. Music swells as the 10-minute video promotion for Columbia urges business people to come enjoy "the good life all year 'round."

It did not quite turn out that way for Charles W. Savage II when International Business Machines Corp. sent him back to his native state as its top corporate representative.

Savage, who is black, quickly discovered that the exclusive clubs where business tends to be conducted in Columbia did not want him as a member. The private golf course around the corner from his home was socially out of bounds. His son complained of mistreatment on school buses; his daughter was not invited to parties for neighbors' children. Disillusioned, he eventually asked IBM for a transfer.

Case Made Headlines

Although it has been two years since his family packed and left, the Savage case made front-page headlines here for a month this spring. Savage had no desire to publicize his travails, known only to a handful of business associates. But at a time when Columbia is promoting itself as "the Sun Belt's emerging city" in a $2.2-million advertising campaign, his story has become a stark illustration of the battle lines between the Old South and the new.

Reacting to his case, the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce has begun boycotting private clubs that do not admit blacks. The state's Republican governor, Carroll A. Campbell Jr., has said he favors disallowing expense claims incurred by officials at clubs that discriminate. And The Columbia Record has published details about other prominent community members, including the Jewish commanding general of an Army training camp, who have had difficulty penetrating the charmed world of wood-paneled clubrooms, lush lawns and private tennis courts.

"You find segregated clubs and segregated communities everywhere, not just in South Carolina," said Theo Mitchell, a black state senator who has proposed revoking the liquor licenses of clubs that discriminate. "I hope that what we have started here will catch on like wildfire throughout the United States."

Jack Bass, a local historian and newspaper columnist, described Columbia's private clubs as part of an inner bastion of a gradually crumbling system of racial segregation. The outer defenses were abandoned in the 1960s with integration of schools, public transport and restaurants. Today, with cities competing for investment, demands are growing for an end to subtler, more intimate forms of racism.

'White Support'

"There's a lot of white support for opening up these positions," Bass said. "What's interesting is that the business community here is confronting the issue openly and taking the lead."

According to an opinion poll organized by the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, 67% of business people in the city favor opening private-club membership to minority groups. Black leaders note that these are precisely the people who, as club members, have maintained the barriers of racial exclusivity.

The Summit Club occupies the 20th floor of the Bankers' Trust tower, providing its 1,200 members, all white, with a commanding view of Columbia's changing skyline. As they sip their martinis, members gaze out at the neoclassical state Capitol, topped by the Stars and Stripes and the Confederate flag. A few blocks away, on the other side of the club, is the First Baptist Church, meeting place of the early secessionists.

Columbia's small-town atmosphere and the constant reminders of history help explain why allegations of discrimination at private clubs have become such a sensitive issue here. The Summit and Palmetto clubs are just around the corner from the offices of most of the people who count in Columbia--and the most convenient places to invite business clients for lunch. Neither club has a black member.

State Bar President

"I was president of all the lawyers in South Carolina and still could not get membership of the Palmetto Club," said I.S. (Leevy) Johnson, the first black president of the state bar association and one of several prominent Columbia citizens who are launching a new, non-discriminatory club known as the Capital.

But club officials see segregation as a non-issue. There is nothing in the bylaws of any Columbia club that prevents admitting minorities.

"The purpose of a private club is to promote a congenial atmosphere among its members. . . . As far as I know, we have never had a black person apply here," said Cameron Todd, president of the Summit Club and senior vice president of Merrill Lynch & Co.

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