Juanita Campbell: 'Perfect person' for her leadership role (2023)

The massive building at 120 York St., near Aiken's First Baptist Church, has become extremely familiar territory for Juanita Campbell over the last several months, as she is well into her second year as executive director of the Center for African American History, Art and Culture.

The building had its origins asImmanuel Institute, part of a broad effort to provide a church and school for former slaves, and the structure now plays host to lectures, concerts, art shows and other attractions – nothing new for Campbell, a USC Aiken graduate largely known through the past decade for work at Aiken Technical College and her alma mater.

"I moved to Aiken to attend USC Aiken, and when I graduated, I fell in love with being here, so I actually started working at USC Aiken in 2009, and I was there until 2017, and prior to that, I was a student worker."

She holds a bachelor's degree in fine arts with a concentration in theater, and she went farther afield – Concordia College, in New York – via remote studies, for a master of arts in digital media.She came on board at the center in 2022.

"Juanita is a jack of all trades," said historianand authorWayne O'Bryant, of North Augusta, noting that Campbell can call on strong knowledge in such areas as theater, music, graphics, websites and fundraising. "She's been a joy to work with. I see her as a perfect person for that position."

Making similar comments was county employee Kandace Cave, largely known for her work in guiding the Keep Aiken County Beautiful program. She knows Campbell through their mutual participation in the CAB as well as in the municipal government's tourism committee.

"She is very intelligent, a people person and super-helpful," Cave said. "She's a pleasure to work with."

Campbell, who spent her childhood in the Savannah/Beaufort area, noted that she, as a child, wanted to be an attorney. "I was extremely interested in ... practicing law. People ask me what area of the law, and I actually wanted to go into criminal law, and I took a couple of courses in ... criminal justice, and in one of those courses, we actually had to conduct a mock trial, and I won my case," she recalled.

"It was very exciting to be in a classroom and have that feeling. It wasn't easy, though, because there was a lot of research, there was a lot of understanding the person and understanding the situation because when you're not physically there, you're having to put the pieces together based on what people are telling you, and being able to paint that picture is what I'm really good at because I have such an active imagination."

On that basis, some people refer to Campbell as a visionary, "because they can picture exactly what the future holds for the center, and I tell people that all the time," she said. "I hold on to that vision, because that is the future. That is where this building is going to go."

She also touched on the topic of past generations. "I've been really surprised that how many people who live in this area or have grown up in this area and don't know the history, whether it be African American or otherwise," she said.

"In the next year, I'm hoping that we will have at least half of the building completed for the permanent exhibits with the installations, so that people can see that progress. It gives them hope that something is happening here."

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Campbell pointed out that CAAHAC is not a museum. "We actually refer to ourselves as 'the center,' and the reason is, there's a distinct difference between a museum and a center. We actually don't have a curator, and we don't house artifacts or store them, and also, we offer other services," she said, noting that parts of the facility are available for rental.

Church groups have been among the visitors, "but not the public school system just yet," Campbell said. "I think that teachers are eager to do that, especially during Black History Month, and we will be available to do that."

There are plenty of challenges involved in dealing with a building that dates back to 1890, she noted, adding, "I'm feeling a lot more comfortable mainly because I have a lot of support from the city."

She laughed and noted, "Clearly, it wasn't built with Wi-Fi. Electricity came later on as well, probably somewhere in the early to mid 1900s. ... As far as funds and different things like that, you know, it's government. I worked for the state prior to coming here, so it's not new."

Among her closest teammates at CAAHAC are Jennifer Curtis, board chairman; Larry Ogletree, financial chairman; Seneca Johnson, vice chairman; and board members Paul Bush, Willie Bell, Athena Freeman, Forest Mahan and Cody Kriegsman.

Curtis said the board, in the search process that led to Campbell, was looking for someone who could carry the center's mission forward by "being there every day, and she is there virtually by herself every day."

Other key criteria were to complete the exhibits "and, while she's trying to get those done, also find artists and art that could be presented in programs at the center," Curtis added.

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Campbell's background includes deep experience in local higher education, as she was Aiken Technical College's design and digital coordinator, following her time as house manager and publicity coordinator at the Etherredge Center, at USC Aiken. Those two state positions, she noted, allowed her to pick up skills that come heavily into play now at the intersection of York Street and Richland Avenue.

Along the way, she has also been a production manager for Joye in Aiken, handling such jobs as recruiting and supervising production assistants, helping arrange for ushers and overseeing delivery of programs, money and tickets. Dance and drama were also parts of her picture, as she was an instructor at Art of Motion Dance Studio (now Dream Dance Academy) and a charter school.

"It's hard for me to sit still," she said, noting that sheis now a board member with Aiken Symphony and Aiken Performing Arts and an active member of St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church. Current roles also include being a commissioner with the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission, a member of Leadership Aiken County's current class and a member of the P.E.O. philanthropic organization.

As for the home front and a social life, she noted, "I have one cat. Her name is Parker, and she's a very, very mild-tempered, very sweet cat. ... I love spending time with my friends. My friends are my family. Most people know this about me."

Her current base of operations on York Street had March of 2022 as a major milestone, when the municipal government took ownership and the facility shifted to being open five days a week and having someone on duty eight hours a day.

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Volunteers are welcome, and those of traditional retirement age are eligible for a monetary boost. "Because we are now under the city, anyone 60 or older can volunteer and receive a rebate for their hours, through the city, on ... their property taxes. It's pretty cool," she noted.

Her wish list includes "volunteers who would not mind being docents – to be tour guides," she said. "Help with some clerical work would be great, but ... I'm the only person that works here, so I answer the phone, I answer the door and I give the tours."

The pieces are still coming into place, and in the meantime, people can volunteer to help organize items, catalog artifacts and help with visitor logs, among other tasks. "We love volunteers," Campbell confirmed.

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