For the people who work, live and play Downtown, the statues of famous Greenvillians are just part of the landscape. We walk by them, sit next to them to rest our feet or to pose for a picture, use them as a meeting place to hook up with friends, even dress them up for holidays! But who ARE these people apparently so important to Downtown Greenville that we saw fit to immortalize them in bronze? This weekend, noted historian and founder of Historic Greenville Tours, John Nolan, will enlighten us on this subject in a series of tours scheduled to take place Saturday morning (June 16th) and Sunday evening (June 17th).  Can’t wait until this weekend to learn more (or perhaps, you’d like to impress Mr. Nolan with your vast knowledge of notable Greenvillians)? Well, here’s a little insight into just WHO these folks are and why they are so significant to our little part of the world.

Across the street from the Hyatt Regency (and the starting point of this weekend’s tour), is an impressive statue depicting former Greenville Mayor, Max Heller. Now, Greenville has had many mayors, but none quite like Max Heller. The epitome of the “American Dream”, Max was an Austrian Jew who fled to Greenville as a teenager to escape the Nazi regime. Arriving with less than $2 to his name, Max quickly found work at the Piedmont Shirt Factory (now the site of Devereaux’s) with the help of a local Greenville girl, Mary Mills, in answer to his plea for assistance.  Seven years later, the young man found himself the Vice President of the company, but soon felt the urge to strike out on his own. In 1948, he started his own shirt company with 16 employees and by the time he sold it 14 years later, his workforce had swelled to 700. With a vow to serve the public, Max ran for and was elected Mayor of Greenville in 1971. To say Greenville would not be what it is today without this event would be an understatement. Max quickly sprang into action – desegregating all city government departments and commissions, so that everyone would have an equal chance for success, strengthening our local economy by convincing corporations such as the Hyatt to build here and setting out to beautify our city so that instead of having out-of-towners drive quickly through Downtown (usually with windows up and doors locked), visitors would want to stop and spend time here. Sculpted by artist Thomas J. Durham, the statue is surrounded by concrete panels depicting aspects of this great man’s life and legacy.  I believe it is safe to say that Downtown Greenville would not be the award-winning, tourism nirvana and fine example of the “New South” that it is today without the faith and vision of Max Heller.

South from Max Heller Legacy Plaza, at the corner of Main and Washington Streets, stands a statue of two young people representing  a group of students whose actions were every bit as crucial in shaping Greenville as Mayor Heller’s. The young man and woman depicted in the statue have no actual names, they are representative of the courage and strength of the young students of Sterling High School. In the 1960’s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, young men and women from this prestigious African-American high school staged peaceful rallies, demonstrations and  “sit-ins” at the Woolworth lunch counter, which was located at this site. Braving taunts, abuse and certain arrest, these resolute students, which included the Rev. Jesse Jackson and museum curator, Ruth Ann Butler, changed the societal landscape of Greenville County and helped end unfair segregation in the Upstate.  With funds raised by The Friends of Sterling, artist Mariah Kirby-Smith sculpted the two students walking proudly down the steps of Sterling High, schoolbooks in hand and hopeful expressions on their faces. The site also contains a memorial marker honoring Sterling High itself, which burned in 1967.

Further south down Main, on Court Street, is a depiction of another statesman important to our area, Joel R. Poinsett. Although officially a resident of Charleston, like many Lowcountry natives, he also had a “summer home” here in the Upstate.  Sculpted by artist Zan Wells and situated near the hotel that bears his name, Mr. Poinsett is shown pausing to read a book, his hat and coat carefully placed beside him. Many of the visitors who stop and pose for a picture with the distinguished gentleman, are unaware that not only is he responsible for bringing the standard of Christmas that bears his name, the Poinsettia plant,  to America, but that he was also the Minister to Mexico, the first consul-general of the US to Buenos Aries, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile, Secretary of War in the Cabinet of President Van Buren,  a respected member of Congress and a member of the South Carolina State Legislature (where he was president of the board of public works). In his spare time (he actually HAD spare time believe it or not), he studied medicine and law, was extremely well traveled and had interests in natural history, botany, science, and politics. No wonder so many of our Upstate landmarks bear his name!

Across from Mr. Poinsett (and in fine company) is the statue of Vardry McBee. Commonly referred to as the “Father of Greenville”, Mr. McBee (pronounced “MACK-bee”, as any “old-family” Greenvillian will quickly inform you) was instrumental in accelerating industrial growth in our area.  After purchasing the land that would become the city of Greenville in 1815, he saw the value of a diversified economy and constructed over 100 buildings in Greenville County as well as built several mills (including a textile mill) along the Reedy River A humble man, McBee used his considerable fortune to improve the lives of his fellow citizens, appropriating his land and fortunes to public projects, He was a great believer in freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and that education should be available to all, and gave lands and money for the establishment of male and female colleges,  Greenville’s first churches (all of different denominations) and open areas available for public assembly upon which no buildings could be built (the Poinsett Hotel’s L-Shape is the result of being built around one of these city squares). He championed the construction of the railroad line that connected Columbia and Greenville, which become a turning point in the economy of the town. Sculpted by artist T. J. Dixon, McBee is shown in thoughtful repose, surveying the city he helped create.

Positioned near the Greenville News building, at the corner of Main and Broad Streets, is a formidable statue depicting Revolutionary War General, Nathaniel Greene. Although not actually from the Upstate, Gen. Greene played a significant role in the fight for American Independence in our state and is believed to be the inspiration for our city’s name (although the spelling has been changed). As one of the most trusted of Washington’s generals and the leader of the American troops in the South, Greene’s military genius was pivotal to Patriot victories in the Carolinas, thus turning the tide of the War in favor of the Americans. In this work created by the husband and wife team of James Nelson and T.J. Dixon, Greene is shown in an imposing stance, spyglass in hand, looking north toward victory at Yorktown.

Past the Main Street Bridge, located across from the Falls Park entrance at the corner of Main and Camperdown, sits the statue depicting one of Greenville’s most brilliant native sons, Charles Townes. The Nobel Prize winner for his studies that became the laser, Townes was recently listed as one of a thousand most important people of the last thousand years in the book, 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: The Men and Women Who Charted the Course of History for the Last Millennium.  Born in 1915 near what is now St. Francis Hospital, this future scientist showed an interest in the natural world and technology at an early age.  A precociously bright and innovative boy, he enrolled at Furman University as a sixteen-year-old freshman and later graduated summa cum laude with majors in physics and foreign languages in 1935. After earning a master’s degree at Duke University and a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, he began work at Bell Labs, designing radar systems for American bombers in WWII. After the war, he joined the physics department at Columbia University. It was here, sitting on a park bench in 1951 that he had an epiphany which lead to the creation of laser technology. It is this moment that is captured in this sculpture by artist Zan Wells.  Clutching the envelope on which he scribbled the formula for his theory, Townes is shown with the light of scientific revelation reflected on his face.  In tribute to Dr. Townes’ invention, the statue actually contains a small laser. Surrounding this piece in what is known as “Townes Plaza” are four other benches from Franklin Park in Washington, DC, where Townes is reputed to have had his earth-shaking “a-ha moment”.  Visitors are invited to sit with Dr. Townes and have a revelation of their own.

South on Main Street, toward the part of Greenville known as the West End, is the final and perhaps most poignant statue on the tour, the sculpture of Joseph Jefferson Jackson, otherwise known as “Shoeless Joe”.  The story of Joe Jackson’s life and career are worthy of a Shakespearean play. Son of a poor Greenville sharecropper, Joe quickly went to work in a textile mill as soon as he was old enough to reach the machinery. As a young teen, he was recruited to join the mill’s baseball team as its youngest player. First positioned as a pitcher, he was moved to left field after one of his pitches actually broke an opponent’s arm. He would play this position for the rest of his baseball career. But it was at bat that Joe’s amazing natural talent shown through. Swinging his beloved “Black Betsy”, Joe set record after record – many of which still stand today. This is how artist Doug Young chose to portray this baseball legend – forever frozen in time, swinging for the stands, his eyes alight with the knowledge that he just hit another home run.  It was this incredible ability that soon caught the eye of major league scouts. After playing with several professional teams, Joe was signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1915.  Over the next four seasons, he became Chicago’s favorite sports icon, leading the league in batting statistics and winning the admiration of fans and fellow players alike. Babe Ruth even modeled his batting style after Joe’s and Ty Cobb said Joe was “the finest natural hitter in the history of the game”. But Joe’s success was short-lived. In a tragic turn of events, Joe found himself accused with seven of his teammates of  “throwing” the 1919 World Series in what became known as the “Black Sox Scandal”. Despite the fact that Jackson had 12 hits (a Series record), a .375 batting average (the best of both teams) committed no errors, and he and the other seven were acquitted of fraud charges, the “Chicago Eight” were banned from baseball for life by Commissioner Kennesaw Landis. He never played professional baseball again after the 1920 season. After living in several southern towns and cities and playing semi-pro baseball under assumed names, Joe and his wife, Kate returned to Greenville to live out the rest of his years.  Always a beloved local hero to the people of Greenville,  Joe continues to be a hero to baseball fans all over the world. He still holds franchise records for the Indians and the White Sox for both triples in a season and career batting average. In 1999, he was #35 on The Sporting News  list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players and was chosen by MLB fans as the 12th best outfielder of all time. Yet, despite vast amounts of evidence proclaiming his innocence and numerous pleas from fans, Greenville citizens, professional ball players and even members of Congress, Shoeless Joe continues to be blacklisted from baseball, thus preventing his well-deserved inclusion in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Want to learn more? Then join Mr. Nolan and others for a guided tour down Main Street to discover what these wonderful statues and the remarkable people they depict reveal about our city’s past and present. Sponsored by Historic Greenville Tours and the Upcountry History Museum, the tours begin in the Dogwood Suite at the Hyatt Regency and end at Shoeless Joe Plaza (intersection of Main and Augusta). Two tours will take place – Saturday morning, June 16th, from 8:30AM until 10:30 AM and again Sunday evening, June 17th, from 6:30PM until 8:30PM. Tickets for the tours cost $20 for UHM members and $30 for all others and are available at The Upcountry History Museum. Space is very limited. If you are not able to fit either of these tours into your summer schedule, no worries…similar tours are planned to take place in September and December. For more information, visit www.

So there you have it…a diversity of sculptural works depicting a diversity of people, all of whom had a significant part in shaping our fair city. And the list is ever-growing…plans are in the works to create more statues because Greenville natives just KEEP ON doing remarkable things! Who will be next? I personally would like to see a sculptural tribute to Academy Award winning actress (and Greenville native) Joanne Woodward, to acknowledge Greenville’s thriving arts and theatre community…but that’s just my opinion.


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