Ernest A. Finney Jr. Cultural Arts Center to be ‘an incubating place’ for Black creatives

As a visual artist in Columbia, having opportunities to display your work is paramount. No one knows this more than Anthony Lewis, who creates under his artistic moniker, ALewisProject.

Lately, if you’ve been looking for him, you’ll likely find him at the Earnest A. Finney Jr. Cultural Arts Center, home to “African American culture, art and expression,” as described on their official website.

Lewis is an artist-in-residence, focusing on African-American themes; the Finney Center is a perfect fit for his artistic vision.

“I’m so happy to be involved with the Ernest A. Finney Arts Center. This is my first time creating in a space like this, it’s a dream come true for me,” the multi-disciplinary artist told Free Times. “This cultural arts center will bring many amazing things to the city. I can see in the future the artists in this space creating and engaging in the community, being involved from young kids to older, come here as a place where they can gain inspiration.”

Obit Finney

In 2012. Judge Ernest Finney, Jr., speaks during a ceremony for the 2012 inductees into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Judge Ernest Finney, Jr., the first African American Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court since Reconstruction, died Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017. He was 86.  AP Photo/The Sun News, Steve Jessmore, File 

The Center’s name is after Ernest A. Finney Jr., South Carolina’s first appointed African-American Supreme Court Justice since Reconstruction. An HBCU graduate from Claflin, Finney represented the Friendship 9, a group of Black junior college students arrested and charged for attempting to desegregate McCrory’s lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina in 1961.

That spirit of fighting for justice is a family tradition. Nikky Finney, the daughter of the Center’s namesake and its executive director, has been a colossal voice for Civil Rights and the Black Arts Movement.

Nikky Finney talked to Free Times about the origin of the center and one of the inspirations from another Columbia Civil Rights legend.

“Kevin A. Gray, who founded and owned Railroad Barbecue, was speaking with his long-time friend Frances Close, who had also helped him get Railroad BBQ off the ground, about a building that was about to go on the market,” Finney recounted. “The building sat beside his restaurant and the old railroad tracks that had long divided up downtown Columbia.”

That building beside Railroad BBQ was Southern Electric, and the owner planned to close the space. That’s when Gray had an idea for the building.

“Kevin asked him to give him a little time to think through an idea he long had for the community, a dream that centered around building a Cultural Arts Center in the Black community,” Finney said.

Nikky Finney (copy)

Poet Nikky Finney.

“Kevin spoke with Francie about how they might buy the building and assemble a circle of interested emotional and financial investors. They both believed my father’s name should be on the building,” she continued. “That’s when they called my family with the idea and asked me if I would join them in this endeavor. It was a compelling idea that I found impossible to look away from, even though I was busy with my own life.”

But amid the center getting off the ground, Kevin Gray passed away suddenly in March 2023, shocking the community. Finney said the effects of his death still linger.

“We are still in mourning,” she said, adding that when you walk inside Railroad BBQ on Hampton Street, “you will find on every inch of wall space a profound and prolific museum of Black South Carolina.”

Known as a “radical thinker and lovely human,” Gray passed at 65. His life and legacy are tied to Columbia politics and activism, serving on the American Civil Liberties Union’s national board and as the South Carolina coordinator for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in the 1980s.

“Kevin was an activist, historian, community, and politically astute at everything,” Finney said. “He spoke his mind and heart concerning racial and societal inequality without any sugar pills of politeness. Kevin was also a friend to all.”

The legacy of Ernest Finney, Jr. and Gray looms in the two buildings. Railroad and the Arts Center are examples of Black South Carolina pride — everything from political feats to Black musicians and even professional Black athletes from the Palmetto State adorn the walls.

Kevin Alexander Gray

Kevin Alexander Gray, the owner of Railroad BBQ and a longtime political activist, has died. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier 

The center’s focus on amplifying Black artists and art is a part of its narrative to not just ensure the past is represented, but secure the future.

“Unfortunately, far too often the people who have historically sat at the table defining who can be a creative and what creativity is have not always included individuals from every community,” Finney said. “We are building a necessary community institution. I see art as super necessary. Fire Department. Post Office. Cultural Arts Center.”

Although AlewisProject is the first full-time artist with a studio in the building, the vision is bright. You walk into the center and see mock-ups of the space’s vision to fill Columbia’s void of accessible, Black creative spaces.

Life helps poet find her words S.C. native Finney to speak at Ashley Hall

Nikky Finney is a poet, professor at the University of South Carolina and daughter of retired S.C. Supreme Court Justice Ernest A. Finney Jr.

“Every community is stronger when their artists and creatives have a place to create — a non-judgmental nurturing place, an incubating place,” Finney told Free Times.

“Expressing oneself is the very heart of being human. Our center is a place of expression, but expression is just the tip of the iceberg. We also want to focus on the architecture of expressing oneself. We don’t want you just to express yourself. Art is when you make something.

“So, we also believe we are building a place where creatives will make, build and craft new worlds for themselves. It’s not just the act of expressing yourself, but the work of building new worlds for our individual selves and for our community through the medium of art.”

The center officially launched in August 2022, Finney explained. She added the team is building out their vision and seeking community partners, now that a board is finalized.

“We are about to go into the fall of 2023 with a dynamic agenda for 2024,” Finney concluded. “The community will be hearing more about this in the very near future. 2024 is going to be a very exciting year for us.”

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