An arts venue? A racial museum? The Echo Theater
What will be the Echo Theater’s fate?
Grant funds may be available to restore the old Echo Theater in downtown Laurens, but they might come with a stipulation that the building reflect its history - a history many in the county seat would rather forget.
The building was constructed around 1919, and that itself would qualify it for historic restoration money. Gene Madden said he remembers buying popcorn there in 1949, when it was segregated. And for about 10 years, it was the “world-famous” Red Neck Shop. Just a small blip in the building’s overall history, but a wrinkle that could get it renovated - if it became a museum to a time of racial tension in America.
At a Thursday night meeting, many said turning the Echo into that kind of museum would be a mistake. It would remind people of an ugly past, and it would not be conducive to tax-paying businesses needed to revitalize the Laurens central business district.
The district already has a museum, said Fay Edge, representing the Laurens County Museum. That museum has an events venue, and another venue is planned for the roof of a bank building. “On the square there are 14 empty buildings. Anything you can do to bring people in, that would be great,” Madden said.
Black-owned businesses on the “Back Street” were torn down, so why shouldn’t the African-American community have a tourist-attracting museum? That was the argument of others speaking at a re-use ideas meeting held at the historic courthouse. “We are afraid to talk about racism across the nation,” said Rev. David Kennedy, whose church owns the dilapidated building. “We need to take a stand tonight. We are afraid to talk about racism, slavery, people who were lynched and raped. We’re going to have to acknowledge history.”
“Take the Echo sign off and put it in a museum,” Madden said. “Let’s get away from negative history.”
Madden said much more than its checkered past, the Echo needs to be remembered for the children in the late ‘40s and ‘50s who enjoyed movies there. Others said a renovated theater could be a perfect gospel music venue, arts center, and live-theater production venue. It has three stories - the top could be loft apartments, first floor business space or incubator, and the basement a recreation center. Meeting moderator Dr. Jennifer Gunter of the University of South Carolina said the earliest record is that it was established in 1919 as the Princess Theater.
“It (the Redneck Shop) is who we were; it’s not who we are now,” Gunter said.
It will take about $500,000 to bring the building up to modern codes, she said.
The first step to reclaiming the Echo will come on June 8, the date of the Laurens County Chamber of Commerce Quarterly Clean-up. People will be asked to clean in downtown Laurens and come specifically to the Echo to clean around it, and remove paper and glass from inside the building. A person has vandalized the building in recent weeks, but people at the meeting said that has been stopped.
Gunter said, “It can be a shining beacon for Laurens.”