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NOTED AS ONE OF THE FIRST BLACK SPORTS STARS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA, where he started every game of his four-year career as a Gamecock from 1972–1976, Alex English went on to play in the NBA for sixteen seasons before returning to his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia is where his roots are planted, and it’s a town that he’s known since the days of segregation.
Alex, born in 1954, grew up in a Columbia that older generations remember well but one that younger generations are fortunate to only hear about from their grandparents or read about in history books.
“I grew up in a very segregated and racist Columbia,” Alex said. “I have been subjected to racist incidents that I am sure people of color that grew up in South Carolina have also experienced. I remember as a young boy getting hit with a white fist, violently, for nothing other than it was his privilege to do so. I also remember after selling newspapers on a hot South Carolina summer
day, going into a gas station to get a drink of water,
and getting kicked in the butt, because it was a water fountain that only ‘whites’ could drink from. These were incidents that we knew could happen because you were Black, and considered a second class citizen.”
Fortunately for Alex, he grew up in his grandmother’s home where she did her part to prevent her family from succumbing to the racist mindsets that they encountered throughout their day.
“She would soothe us with her presence and determination,” Alex said. “She made us understand that not all white people were unkind, that there were some ‘good white folk.’ She told us to not let their bad behavior consume us, because it would make us a co- conspirator, and God doesn’t want that.” Alex spent his earliest childhood days in a fully segregated South Carolina, with desegregation beginning in the state when he was around 10 years old.
“I grew up in downtown Columbia, on Barnwell and Gervais,” said Alex.
“Growing up in a segregated Columbia had some positives to it—one was that all of the Black businesses did well because they had a built in clientele. Black people patronized Black owned businesses because we weren’t welcome in the front door of most white owned businesses.”
Alex refers fondly on these businesses from his childhood.
“I can remember places like The Shady Rest restaurant that had some of the best hash and rice around, and Nell’s Restaurant where people could go and get the best dinners, especially on Friday when she served the best baked short ribs around,” said Alex.
“There was A and B House with the best banana pudding in town—people would drive from as far away as Greenwood to get their banana pudding! But, there has been so much Black history lost
in the name of progress. As a native Columbian, it’s sad to see a lot of the old Black neighborhoods that have disappeared throughout the years. There is a lot of our history that has been bulldozed over.”
One thing that Alex enjoys about today’s Columbia is the multitude of opportunities that our community
has to experience other cultures, to learn and share about our city’s history together, and to interact with new people. In particulate, he loves going to a variety of annual festivals that are put on in Columbia each year.
“Columbia is a city of festivals,” said Alex. “I try to take in as many as possible. I especially make it a point to attend The Pride Festival, the annual Jubilee at the Mann-Simons Site, the Greek Festival, the Latin Festival, the Rosewood Arts Festival, and the International Festival, among others.”
Alex also loves to spend his Saturdays out and about in Columbia, starting off with Soda City Market on Main Street.
“It has such a big city feel that brings all elements of our society and cultures together,” Alex said. “It’s one of the rare times that all of our races and ethnicities come together, which is too bad, because we need to come together more often and share ourselves, learn about each other.”
For Alex, an ideal Saturday in Columbia doesn’t stop after a trip to Soda City Market. His favorite Saturdays are
the ones where he can also attend
a festival or a Gamecock football game. Weekends are also perfect days for spending the afternoon at the Columbia Museum of Art or the South
Carolina State Museum, or an evening catching a play at Trustus Theatre or live entertainment at The Township Auditorium.
“Columbia is a beautiful city, but I don’t like that we are still so separated from one another,” Alex said. “Once we leave work and school, we go back to our sometimes segregated neighborhoods where only people that look like us
are the ones that we interact with. We don’t take the initiative to cross our comfortable boundaries to get to know our neighbors that don’t look like us.”
Alex recognizes the steps that Columbia is taking today to recognize and honor the African American history and the trailblazers that left their mark on our city. From the African American monument on the State House grounds to recognizing the contributions from great African Americans, the city, he says, is doing its part to begin making Black history more accessible for all. He believe that there is still a ways to go and there are still changes that all of us can make to make Columbia an even better place to call home.
“White citizens need to attempt to try and understand why people of color feel the way they do,” Alex said. “Stop being afraid to step over the line of privilege, and actually get to know the real history of the United States of America.”