HARVIN COLUMN: Small Johns Island Museum preserves way of life
Here in Charleston, we love preserving our links to the past, and that can be seen in the grand old homes on The Battery that have had generations living in them.
But folks around here also preserve smaller pieces of history, and it’s wonderful to see seemingly insignificant buildings restored and maintained, often by volunteers and small donations.
Such is the case of the School House Museum on Johns Island. Originally, the Walnut School House was built in 1868, one of about 11 one-room school houses on Johns Island that were the beginning of public education after the Civil War. The school house first was used by freed slaves and eventually by white students living at the southwest end of the island.
It was located on what is now Betsy Kerrison Parkway near Pumpkin Hill Road and became a courthouse in the 1930s. But in 1991, the building was going to be demolished as part of the road-widening project.
Betty Stringfellow, a local historian, rescued the building. She grew up on the Sea Islands, and her mother, Marie Andell Hamilton, had attended the school.
She had the building moved two miles down the road to her property, restored it, created exhibits and opened it as the Johns Island Museum in 2001.
But as is often the case without public funds, the museum closed in 2010 until the Johns Island Conservancy led an effort to reopen the museum two days a week and by appointment for school and community groups.
This group of volunteers is doing good things for Johns Island, like creating a multimedia project called “Johns Island Now” that shows the history of the island and the current development trends. And it is documenting the Johns Island dolphins, which are well-known for their fish-stranding behavior to snatch up a good meal.
The conservancy is looking for like-minded volunteers for this summer to hang out at the museum for two to three hours so that summer visitors to the islands can drop in.
They will have a photo exhibit from the book “Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life” by Guy and Candie Carawan that shows life on Johns Island from 1870 to 1960.
It features the work of Esau Jenkins, born and raised on Johns Island, who worked tirelessly to get full education and the right to vote to blacks. He was a key figure in the local civil rights movement.
He also met the Carawans, who were fellow activists, folklorists and musicians. In 1963, they moved to Johns Island and in 1966 published their collection, documenting African-American life on Johns Island with quotes, stories and essays by Johns Islanders, music from the Moving Star Hall praise house and photographs by Robert Yellin.
The original material was donated to the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. The current exhibit is based on copies of that important work.
The museum has its summer hours starting today, and it is free and open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays. It’s a wonderful way to see a small slice of history surrounded by the very fields and marshes that long have been the fabric of Johns Island. The museum is at 4455 Betsy Kerrison Parkway on the way to Beachwalker Park.
And if you want to volunteer to help keep the museum open for a few hours this summer, contact the conservancy at www.jicsc.org.
Reach Stephanie Harvin at 937-5557 or email@example.com.