MISSING PIECE Overlooked historic figure had role in creating the old Dorchester County hospital

bo petersen/staff The St. Barnabas Mission Chapel that Catherine “Kitty” Springs (below) helped build still stands in Summerville, and now serves the Reformed Episcopal Church Diocese of the Southeast.

SUMMERVILLE — She was biracial. Her husband was white. A century ago, that wasn’t accepted.

But Kitty Springs, a seamstress who rode a wagon to sell hats, became a wealthy property owner and a force in Summerville in the 1880s and 1890s.

She is one of the more overlooked figures in town history, and maybe the missing piece in the controversy over the “historical” nature of the old Dorchester County hospital.

Springs overcame the bigotry of the time with her entrepreneurship, and provided for others in the community who also faced bigotry.

She owned the hospital property and provided space there for the St. Barnabas Mission, one of the earliest public health care efforts in town, and led to the hospital being opened at that site.

The former hospital complex is the county’s human services center for the lower county. It comprises an entire city block at a busy intersection in the business district of downtown Summerville, and the county has considered selling it to save money and consolidate services.

Partly to stop a sale that could destroy the building, Summerville preservationists and old town residents have proposed adding it to the town’s historic district.

Others have questioned just how historic the property is.

Town Council is expected to decide in May on the district addition.

St. Barnabas was a combination clinic, school and church under the auspices of St. Paul’s Church — a mission aimed at helping the “Summerville Indians.”

They were mixed-race descendants of native tribes, who took the brunt of some of the worst prejudice of the era.

That, apparently, is why Springs let the church use her land.

“I just think the woman is awesome,” said Sue George, a Summerville resident who has researched records to learn about Springs, after seeing her name on the deed search to a property George bought.

Born Catherine Smith, Springs was a Charleston dressmaker with a thriving King Street business who opened a hat and dress shop in Summerville. She apparently married Richard Springs, a dry goods merchant with a store on Hutchinson Square, in the heart of Summerville’s downtown.

Interracial marriages were not recognized at the time. When he died in 1889, Richard Springs willed all his possessions and property to her for her “services for years as a housekeeper.”

Even before then, Springs was donating money and land to build landmark institutions such as the Church of the Epiphany and the Bank School, the beginning of public education for blacks.

After her death, the Austin School, the renowned black school in town history, was built on property she deeded for “none but a genteel dwelling or cottage and school house,” with the stipulation that no trees be “cut or destroyed” unnecessarily to build it.

A number of the buildings she owned or helped build still stand, including the Epiphany church, where a monument to her has been placed, and the old Post Office on Hutchinson Square.

St. Barnabas Chapel eventually was moved a half-mile from the hospital property, to preserve it. The chapel has become a sanctuary and practice preaching facility for Cummins Theological Seminary in the historic district, said the Rev. Ronald Moock, who teaches at the seminary.

George’s children were born in the hospital. Her mother attended services for a time in St. Barnabas Chapel. She and her husband opened a business in a property that had been owned by Springs.

“It seems like everywhere (Springs) went, I have benefited from it,” George said. “She was a very real contributor to our community.”

The hospital property, “I think of as, maybe not sacred grounds, but certainly an attribute to Summerville.”

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.