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Conway mulling future for historic, segregation-era elementary school

Whittemore

The former Whittemore Elementary School in Conway could find new life as a high-tech learning and community center. Provided

CONWAY — A historic Conway elementary school that educated nearly all of Horry County’s Black students near the end of the Jim Crow era could find a second life as a high-tech learning and community center.

“What we are proposing is doable, and will infuse our community with a great deal of life that it is in need of right now,” Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy said Jan. 24, during a Conway City Council workshop to explore options for saving Whittemore Elementary School.

Her remarks came months after the city said it would use $500,000 in federal COVID aid to address structural problems at the Horry Street building — leading many activists to fear it would be demolished.

Since then, a coalition of architects, community leaders and scholars formed what one member called a “dream team” dedicated to its preservation, envisioning a state-of-the-art community center and gathering place that is owned by the city of Conway.

“The recognition, social and economic gains associated with preserving Whittemore Elementary School far outweigh any of the stated economic costs,” said Cheryl Adamson, president of the Whittemore Racepath Historical Society.

Among those working with her are Michael Allen, a star quarterback at Conway High School in the mid-1990s who now runs a Greenville engineering firm, and Carolyn Dillian, an archaeologist and Coastal Carolina University professor.

The Whittemore schools operated at various locations between 1936 and 1970 under America’s “separate but equal” system of segregation, with Conway's elementary building opening along Horry Street in 1954.

Since integration in the 1970s, the Whittemore elementary building stood vacant — its fate turning with the punishing floodwaters of Hurricane Florence in 2018, when plans by the city to convert it into a community center were derailed because of catastrophic storm damages that pushed the price tag to nearly $20 million for renovations.

Allen, who led Conway High’s football team to the state semifinals in 1994 and 1995, said his team did a cost analysis that could put the price of repairs much lower.

Blain-Bellamy, who attended Whittemore Elementary School herself, said the city supported attempts to save it, promising more talks in the coming months as development and financing plans emerge.

“This is something that fits the philosophy of what we call ‘Sankofa,' ” a Ghanian concept urging people to use customs and traditions of the past as a path forward, Bellamy said.

“We see this as looking back to honor the people who have gone before us while working together and thinking forward to bring our children into the 21st and 22nd centuries,” she said.

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Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

Benson joined The Post and Courier's Columbia bureau in November 2019. A native of Boston, he spent three years at the Greenwood Index-Journal and has won multiple South Carolina Press Association awards for his reporting.