Growing up in Clinton, S.C., about 15 miles away, Freeman said he knew the Redneck Shop existed, but he didn’t know much about it.
Now it consumes most of his days. Freeman, 24, is leading a project dedicated to converting the former house of hate into a site of reconciliation and remembrance.
Freeman became fixated on this mission in 2018, when he was a student at the University of South Carolina. He was in the final stretch of his last semester as an undergraduate when he saw a “60 Minutes” special on the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., in honor of the thousands who were lynched in the 70 years after the Civil War. Many of those lynchings, Freeman learned, took place in his home state, and in Laurens County.
“I was blown away by it,” Freeman recalled. “I knew nothing about this history of racial violence in my community. It truly ate away at me, especially the fact that no one was talking about it.”
Rather than preparing for his final exams, Freeman buried himself in books and websites, delving into the dark history of race relations in South Carolina and the country at large. Not long into his search, he settled on a local, quintessential manifestation of racism and hatred: the Redneck Shop.
“I didn’t know the weight and reality of the evil that was inside that shop until I started digging,” Freeman said.
He read voraciously about the complicated history of the Redneck Shop — which, he quickly gathered, was not entirely defined by hate. Indeed, an unexpected friendship was forged between Michael Burden, the former co-founder of the Redneck Shop, and a local Black preacher, the Rev. David Kennedy, whose great-great-uncle was lynched in Laurens County. Their unlikely bond became the subject of a recent film, “Burden.”
Burden sold the theater to Kennedy in 1997, much to the chagrin of John Howard, his co-owner and business partner, with whom he had a falling out. There was one caveat, though: The deal to sell the building to Kennedy included a legal stipulation that entitled Howard to continue running the shop rent-free. So that’s what Howard did, until 2012, when Kennedy won a 15-year legal battle and the shop was finally forced to close.
Over the years, Kennedy — who leads the New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church in Laurens — fought against the overtly offensive shop through peaceful protests and rallies, drawing hundreds of demonstrators.
“Being born Black in America — and in the South, in particular — I have too many stories to tell, too many experiences,” Kennedy, 67, said. “Once you speak out, you also have to be willing to suffer, to sacrifice your mind, your heart and your soul, for the betterment of the people. So, I fought.”
Kennedy’s long-held dream, he said, is to transform the vacant, dusty Redneck Shop from a symbol of racism into a symbol of reconciliation, a place of hatred to a place of healing.
His wish is finally coming true.
He was brainstorming ways to raise funds and renovate the empty shop when he got a call from an unknown number in April 2018. It was Freeman.
“It was an emotional moment for me, when this young, White male called,” Kennedy said.
Freeman was also pleasantly surprised when Kennedy answered the phone.
“Here is a man who has committed his life to trying to make things better for people. He has been pushing this rock up the hill for his whole life,” Freeman said.
The next day, they had lunch together, marking the beginning of a yet another unlikely, but mutually meaningful, friendship.
During their first meeting, Freeman expressed his desire to help memorialize the legacy of the Redneck Store while reimagining its future. Kennedy promptly accepted his offer.
“Since that moment, this has become the driving force in my life,” Freeman said. “I took a chance on a cause that I care about more than anything in the world.”
Freeman eventually paused his professional pursuit of becoming a lawyer and left his job as a law clerk in January 2020 to focus full time on the Echo Project — named after the original Echo Theater — which he and Kennedy co-founded in 2019.
“When Regan came on, things started materializing,” Kennedy said. “He has truly been a catalyst. The young people want change.”
The plan for the project is to create a community center and racial reconciliation museum, which will showcase artifacts from the original Redneck Shop, including items Freeman recently uncovered from Howard’s personal collection of KKK memorabilia. The project will extend beyond the shop, with the goal of producing nationwide educational programs, as well as historical markers at lynching sites.
“We feel strongly that we will begin a process that we haven’t seen happen yet in America,” Kennedy said. “We want to make this place a center of diversity, where diversity is not only talked about, but is celebrated in action.”
“I remember when this whole idea was just a little note on my phone, and now we have a third of a million dollars,” Freeman said. “We are finally going to turn the page on this.”
Still, he added: “This is a work in progress. We need help. We need people to believe in us and want to take a stand with us.”
While the Echo Project is in the process of securing the necessary funds to begin building, an architecture and construction firm have signed on to start work on the project.
“I do not want to destroy what is there, but I want to change the narrative of the building,” said Michael Allen, chief executive and founder of MOA Architecture. “I want to take the stories and experiences from the building and transform it into something you can physically see and touch.”
David Walker of Sodexo, who is managing construction on the project, has a similar vision.
“I see it emerging as somewhat of an iconic place,” he said. “I don’t think there is a more important time in our nation’s recent history for us to be doing work like this.”
Freeman echoed that sentiment, referring specifically to the mob of Trump supporters — a number of whom were toting Confederate flags and showcasing other hateful symbols — that stormed the Capitol on Wednesday.
“The fact is, a man with a Confederate flag today got closer to the halls of power in the U.S. Capitol than anybody did 150 years ago,” said Freeman. “That’s why this is so necessary. We need to show what justice and reconciliation looks like — and why we must stand against hatred.”
Kennedy said it’s about time.
“It’s like a long dream, a long journey, that is finally ready to materialize,” he said.
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