This past year, four large reproductions of historic quilts were installed on the exterior of Greenville’s Sterling Community Center. The original quilts are owned by residents of the historic Sterling neighborhood located adjacent to Greenville’s West End. The quilt on the front of the building is an example of quilts that provided coded information for enslaved persons navigating the Underground Railroad.
The four art pieces were produced by professor of landscape architecture and urban design Tom Schurch, his graduate students, and volunteers from the Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail program, the latest part of a years-long collaboration with the Sterling neighborhood and the Sterling Land Trust. A grant from the Clemson Architectural Foundation funded the work. In addition, Greenville County Parks Recreation and Tourism granted permission for and is completing installation.
The Sterling neighborhood dates to the late 1800s and is anchored by the Sterling Community Center, located on the site of Sterling High School, the first African-American high school in the Upstate. The building was largely destroyed by fire in the 1960s, and the community center is located in the remaining part of the school.
The Sterling Land Trust was formed in 2010 by residents of the neighborhood in collaboration with Sterling High School alumni, such as Mack Lockhart, who had moved back to Greenville after a successful career in Richmond. “I moved back home and looked at this area and saw a need,” he said. “Sterling alumni — we bleed Sterling blue and white – just like Clemson fans.”
James Thompson, another Sterling High alumnus and current president of the trust, agreed. “We tried to step in and reshape the future of that community so that the history won’t die out when we’re gone,” he said. “The role of the trust is to maintain the integrity of affordable housing for people who might not be otherwise able to live in this perimeter of the city.” The trust has partnered with Bon Secours St. Francis, Clemson and “a host of other organizations that have stepped up to help us,” he said.
Deb Long, director of Healthy Community Initiatives at Bon Secours St. Francis, first contacted Schurch in 2015. “Tom and his students have been working with the land trust ever since,” she said. “The land trust is a great group of committed individuals who love the organization and what they can do on behalf of the community. The thing I’m most proud about is that they built their first house, and they have a tenant who needed affordable housing.”
Schurch and his students have worked on a variety of projects in partnership with the trust and the Healthy Community Initiatives, including the quilt artwork, designs for a planned memorial commemorating Sterling High School and drawing up numerous possible plans for neighborhood development — taking into account safety, walkability, street character, common spaces and a sense of shared community — using design to try to encourage a return to the village mentality of the old Sterling neighborhood that was anchored by the high school.
“With respect to the memorial,” said Schurch, “we worked in a partnership. It was not something done from the Clemson end and given to the trust. It was something we worked on together. That project epitomizes how we have worked together over the years with James and Mack and others. They’ve joined us in the studio at Clemson to review work, to work with the students and with me.”
That partnership and getting to know and listen to people “who will inhabit your design” was important for Emily Kelly M ’18. “It’s important to be innovative and push ahead with unconventional and exciting ideas. But the process is best when in parallel with an ongoing dialogue with the community.” She now works for WRT in San Francisco, a firm with a similar approach of using engagement to drive the design process. “Being exposed to this type of community design in school can be crucial for shaping a personal design ethic that carries over into professional life,” she said.
Schurch says that he tries to instill in this professional degree-granting program “that the definition of professionalism is not just about business ethics, but really addressing the community and being a member of a community and giving to that community in the best way possible. “In a way, it gets back to what it means to be a professional — applying the concept of pro bono — doing things for good. Hopefully that’s a lesson our students are learning.”
“That artwork will be there long after we are gone,” said Lockhart. “It’s not something weather is going to tear up, and it’s going to enhance the neighborhood and draw all people of the city there. And it has ties right back to Clemson.”
Students like Hannah Slyce, who worked on the project in the fall of 2019, are learning that lesson. “It was really informative and humbling to work with James and Mack who have dedicated their lives to providing affordable, high quality homes for the Sterling community,” she said. “This project really opened my eyes to what it means to do true community design work and gave me an experience I will carry with me into my future career.”
The trust is focused on improving the Sterling neighborhood; completing the quilt projects is one tangible evidence of that. “That artwork will be there long after we are gone,” said Lockhart. “It’s not something weather is going to tear up, and it’s going to enhance the neighborhood and draw all people of the city there. And it has ties right back to Clemson.”