You don’t have to be loud to wield influence.
Just look at Robin Waites.
Those who know Waites, the longtime executive director of Historic Columbia, the nonprofit focused on historic preservation and education in Richland County, are likely familiar with the quiet, contemplative manner in which she carries on conversations. It’s a demeanor that was on display recently as she chatted with a Free Times reporter at a picnic table on the grounds of the Robert Mills House and Gardens on Blanding Street.
“I am not a blustery person, and I think that helps to reassure people that I am listening and responding in a way that is thoughtful,” Waites says. “I really consider myself a facilitator.”
While her manner might not be blustery, Waites’ dedication to her work has captured the attention of others.
One Columbia for Arts and Culture, the city-backed arts-boosting organization, announced recently that Waites has been chosen to receive this year’s Stephen G. Morrison Visionary Award. It’s an honor given to a Columbian who reflects the values and qualities of the late Morrison, the attorney, former One Columbia board chairman and well-known patron of the arts and historical community who died in 2013.
Past winners of the Morrison Award include former Riverbanks Zoo leader Satch Krantz, Columbia City Ballet’s William Starrett, artist and dancer Terrance Henderson, historian Bobby Donaldson and Richland Library Executive Director Melanie Huggins.
The One Columbia board is lauding a number of Historic Columbia accomplishments under Waites’ watch, including the transformation of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home, the renovation of the Mann-Simons site on Richland Street, and the 2018 renovation of the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens. Historic Columbia’s work on those properties was specifically singled out because it shines a light on the role that enslaved people and post-emancipation African Americans played in Columbia.
Waites, a Columbia native who received her masters in art history from the University of South Carolina, has been with Historic Columbia since 2002 and has been its executive director since 2004. Prior to landing at Historic Columbia, she was the art curator at the South Carolina State Museum.
Waites says receiving the Morrison Award is “humbling,” and a bit personal, as Morrison was the board president of Historic Columbia early in her tenure with the nonprofit.
“He was a visionary,” Waites says of Morrison. “He and Belinda Gergel, together, those were the first two who were kind of my supervisors, if you will, as board presidents. Under their reign we drafted a new strategic plan for the organization that I think changed the course of Historic Columbia. It was their vision and passion that really charted that course. He was a special person for me personally, but also just in the arts community and social justice community.”
Waites acknowledges that Historic Columbia has, among other things, worked to highlight the stories of African Americans at various sites in Richland County. While she says that’s the “right thing to do,” it hasn’t been popular with everyone.
“In the past couple weeks, we had a Facebook post from somebody who came to do a tour of Hampton-Preston for the holidays and was disappointed that we were, as he saw it, focusing too much on the enslaved narrative of the site,” Waites says. “Which is fine. I think people are so used to it being so white male heavy that when you sprinkle in even a little bit of a different perspective they feel like it’s off-balance. When, in fact, it’s almost perfectly balanced between those two narratives.”
One Columbia Executive Director Lee Snelgrove says Waites has been a mentor to him, and, as he has sought to grow One Columbia, he has often looked to Historic Columbia as a “model organization.”
Snelgrove says Waites’ quiet demeanor belies her passion, and the clout she wields in telling Columbia’s history in new and impactful ways.
“She’s very quiet. But when it gets down to the work, she is quite ambitious and powerful in how she conveys her ideas,” Snelgrove says
“She has been fantastic in bringing more attention to the stories of Columbia that were far too often ignored in our past. She’s good at bringing those out, but not having to represent them herself or be the sole voice of it. She is very passionate about giving the attention and recognition to those that deserve it or need it as a part of retelling the story.”
Historic Columbia has been keen on community partnerships under Waites’ leadership, and the organization has worked with neighborhoods and individuals to help bring about a number of programs, including the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative and the Columbia African American Archaeology Project.
Waites says Historic Columbia will continue to look for community partners.
“I’m a big partnership person,” she says. “I think this organization has a lot to share from a content perspective. Providing access to history is really important to understanding where we are today in a lot of different sectors.”
What: Stephen G. Morrison Visionary Award presentation
Where: Hotel Trundle, 1224 Taylor St.
When: Tuesday, Dec. 17, 6:30 p.m.
More: 803-254-5008, onecolumbiasc.com