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  • Louis Venters

Opening of FMU's New Center for Health Sciences and Hopes for a Better Florence

This morning, Francis Marion University hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Luther F. Carter Center for Health Sciences in downtown Florence, and I'm glad I was there. The crowd was a virtual cross-section of the Florence community and the atmosphere was warm.

Congratulations to the University, to officials at the city, county, and state levels, and to the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation for making this happen. It's an important milestone in rebuilding Florence's downtown and making this community a better place to live.

There were tours of the new facility afterwards, and I can say that the building is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. In a few weeks it will be home to students in the University's Physician Assistant, Nurse Practitioner, and Clinical Psychology programs, as well as third- and fourth-year students from the USC Medical School doing clinical rotations. Many of the faculty have already moved in. Outside, the building mirrors in mass, form, and detail the former U.S. Post Office building across Evans Street, tying the new structure to the remaining historic architecture downtown, and it includes a great green space that in effect gives Florence a central plaza for the first time.

Over the next few years, as the programs fill, the building will bring several hundred more people--mostly young adults--into the heart of Florence's downtown every weekday. Combined with a number of other projects already completed or currently underway, this means that revitalization of the city's central business district is well in hand (a remarkable subject that really merits another post or two of its own).

For me, the best part of the event happened just as I was leaving, when I stopped to take a picture of the statue that is the centerpiece of the facility's entry plaza. Sculpted in bronze by local artist Alex Palkovich, it depicts the late Dr. R. N. Beck, a respected local physician, examining a little boy. The image is touching, as it depicts a man caring for a child. But it also speaks volumes about the future of this city and county, because both doctor and patient are African American. In the midst of a society in which positive images of black males are and have been few and far between, we have chosen to place this depiction of skill, service, and love at our town's central intersection.

Other people were taking pictures as I took mine, and it turns out that the little boy was the model for the patient in the sculpture. It was really sweet to capture him and his family there, all beaming with pride.

There's still a lot left to do to make Florence more just, more prosperous, and more unified, but as a historian and an educator--and more particularly as a father of black children--I believe this statue is a powerful statement of purpose and marker of community identity. The symbols we use mean something, especially when they adorn civic space. I read this statue to say that black people helped build this city; that the downtown commons belong to everyone; and that the purpose of higher education isn't personal enrichment but service to the community.

For this, I think everyone in Florence has reason to be proud.

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