Old school being upgraded

Built in 1933, Mary Fields Elementary School on Daufuskie Island was for many years the only school for black children on the island. Author Pat Conroy taught there from 1969 to 1970.

File, The Island Packet

HILTON HEAD -- Renovations have started on the Mary Fields School, the historic schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island where acclaimed Lowcountry author Pat Conroy once taught.

The Daufuskie Island Leadership Council, made up of civic leaders, organized the renovation of the school, which is now the site of community gatherings and a frequent stop for visitors.

The council began the effort after plans to build a community center several years ago on the isolated island proved too expensive, president Chuck Henry said.

Within a few months, he said, the council intends to spruce up the school by:

• Installing central heating and air conditioning, a ramp for wheelchairs and new exterior lighting.

• Replacing the front windows.

• Renovating the bathroom.

• Refinishing the floor.

• Repairing and painting the siding.

The council also hopes to buy new furniture and improve the landscaping.

"It will just make people a little more proud of the community we live in," Henry said.

Built in 1933, the building was for many years the only school for black children on the island, which is accessible only by boat.

Conroy taught there from 1969 to 1970. He incorporated the racism and other difficult conditions his students endured into his 1972 novel "The Water is Wide," according to his Web site.

The school closed in 1995 when Beaufort County built a new elementary school on the island.

To fund the renovation, the council raised $37,000 from more than 100 donors in amounts ranging from $20 to $7,000, Henry said.

The council used that money to obtain a $25,000 matching grant from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry on Hilton Head Island.

Henry said he was pleasantly surprised at the success of the fundraising drive, given the difficult economic conditions.

The donations also impressed foundation officials, said vice president for marketing and communications Carolyn Torgersen.

"It shows a lot of dedication and hard work by that community," she said.

Hamilton School also renovated

As renovations to one of Daufuskie Island's historic schoolhouses begins, work on another is nearing completion.

The Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation plans to make the Jane Hamilton School a library and Gullah learning center to educate visitors about the history and culture of native islanders.

The school opened in 1940 and served island students who would otherwise have walked to the more centrally located Mary Fields School. It closed in 1950 when the island got a school bus, and had fallen into disrepair after serving a variety of uses since then.

The foundation has planned a grand opening for Oct. 24. It spent about $42,000 on the project, $15,000 of which came from a matching grant from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry. The rest was raised from private donors.