The Shaw Community Center, located at 20 Mary Street, was originally constructed in 1874 as the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial School. The school was built as a tribute to Infantry Colonel Robert G. Shaw, a white Union Army officer during the American Civil War. Colonel Shaw was the commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first all-Black infantry regiment in the Northeast. Though he was killed in combat near Charleston, and his entire unit was wiped out during an attack on Fort Wagner, Morris Island (near the Charleston Harbor), the bravery displayed by Colonel Shaw and his men would become a rallying cry for African Americans across the Union to join the Union Army during the war.
Shaw and his men, in fact, volunteered themselves to lead the attack, with Colonel Shaw believing it to be their chance to prove themselves ever the equals of white soldiers. As a direct result of Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment’s actions and sacrifice a myriad of other Black regiments were formed by the Union Army. By the war’s end roughly 10% of the Union’s military forces were made up of African American volunteer soldiers.
After the end of the American Civil War, the family and friends of Colonel Shaw sought to help advance educational opportunities for African Americans in the South while also honoring his legacy. They provided the funds to establish the school as one of the earliest examples of a free school, open to Black residents, in the South. The trustees of the Shaw Memorial School funds deeded the property to the City of Charleston’s Board of School Commissioners in 1874. The deed was given to the city, “provided [that] the party of the second part of its successors or assignees shall and will maintain the said lands during the continuance of this lease, a good free school open to all children without distinction of race or previous condition of servitude and that such school so to be maintained shall be called the Shaw Memorial School.”
The original school-house was a 3-story structure with a flat roof resting on a high brick foundation. Tall arches were set into the bricks. In 1974, exactly 100 years later, the building underwent a variety of extensive renovations, both structural and aesthetic. This included removing all of the floors above the basement level, leaving behind only the original brick foundation. The current building, which is now the Shaw Memorial Community Center, is a flat-roofed, 1½-story brick building with arches set into the bricks.
The Shaw Memorial School was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. The nomination form notably included the detail that the city of Charleston, “hopes to convert this complex of buildings to a recreational center,” a precursor to the 1974 renovations and the site becoming an active community recreation center, named the Shaw Memorial Community Center, providing public recreational spaces to local residents.