GIFFORD — Residents in a one-caution-light hamlet in Hampton County hope a rediscovered remnant of the South's ugly Jim Crow-era past, hidden for decades behind thick overgrowth, will be the jewel that draws tourists.
Drivers along U.S. 321 already stop in Gifford to check out the deteriorating, wooden building with boarded-up windows. A historical marker, dedicated four years ago after the vines and bushes were cleared, informs onlookers that nearly 200 black children annually attended the school from 1921 to 1958.
It's a Rosenwald School — among a small percentage still standing of the estimated 5,000 similar schools built across the South with the help of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, former president of Sears Roebuck & Co., between 1917 and 1932. Historic records show local black residents funded more than half of the $3,225 construction cost so their children could get an education.
Aided by $230,000 in grants so far, plans call for turning the structure back into a community education hub, with a library and computers for students. Photos of former students and teachers would line the walls. A student desk someone snatched years ago has been returned to become part of a display.
"I hope that school takes this town to another level — gives us more exposure," said Gifford Mayor Horney Mitchell, whose mother attended the school.
Attracting visitors off the interstates to a small town some 60 miles from the closest major tourist city may be a tough sell.
But at the very least, the project brings pride to an area of the state ignored "except when people want to point at the negatives," said LaClaire Lafitte, former president of the Hampton County Historical Society, which helped with the research.
"Our small, little towns have no industry. Sometimes they feel forgotten, and this is something that’s important," said Lafitte, who lives in Varnville. "Here’s a little town with a big thing historically."
Little is an understatement, even for the poor county of fewer than 20,000. Gifford consists of about 290 people and five businesses along an isolated stretch 60 miles north of Savannah, 85 miles south of Columbia and 85 miles west of Charleston.
But community groups have worked to secure $150,000 from the state Commerce Department and $80,000 from the legislative delegation, following its placement last year on the National Register of Historic Places. Fundraisers provided the grants' required local match. Work to repair the brick foundation and metal roof is under way.
Full restoration is expected to take hundreds of thousands more. There is no timeline for completion, said Al Wiggins, an organizer and board member of the nonprofit Arnold Fields Community Endowment.
Gifford's Rosenwald school was the first of four built in Hampton County and the only one remaining. Only three dozen of the 500 built across South Carolina remain, in various states of decay and repair.
Former Mayor James Risher, who retired in 2013 after 37 years, remembers attending Gifford's Rosenwald school and cutting wood outside for the "big pot-bellied stove" that kept students warm.
"We got the leftover books," he said.
The school closed in 1958 after the state built a so-called "equalization" school as part of white politicians' failed attempt to forestall integration. The building was then used as a church before eventually being abandoned.
About six years ago, the state Department of Archives and History looked for the school while trying to inventory all the Rosenwald schools, but an intern drove right by without finding it, state preservation supervisor Brad Sauls said.
Even locals who knew of its existence behind the brush didn't realize its significance, until a local history buff started doing some digging.
"No one knew it was historical. They just knew they went to school there," said Laquan Mitchell, the current mayor's son, who was mayor when the effort started. "When they told me it was a Rosenwald school, I cried."
The Rosenwald school is not the only historic structure in tiny Gifford that tells the story of segregation. The one-room, post-Reconstruction-era school that predates Rosenwald still stands, as do the Gifford-Luray "equalization" school used until the early '70s and a whites-only school.
Work also continues on the former home of the Hanna family, who settled there in 1890 and owned a mill and other businesses that made them the town's biggest employer. Before stepping down in 2013, Risher — who took coal into the house as a child — convinced a family member to donate the two-story home as Gifford's new town hall.
State Rep. Bill Bowers, a lifetime area resident, credits Risher with keeping Gifford on the map.
Risher expanded Gifford's other attraction, the annual June Festival — essentially a reunion of family and friends — which dates to the 1890s and commemorates when area residents first learned of the Emancipation Proclamation.
And the current mayor is building on what Risher started. Decades after Risher, who also served 12 years on the integrated Hampton 2 school board, talked the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond into providing about $200,000 to lay the town's water lines, the hamlet is getting a $420,000 state grant to extend the lines.
A separate, $72,000 state grant will tear down eight vacant buildings with no historical significance, to turn safety hazards and potential crime magnets to green space.
Bowers, D-Brunson, hopes the Rosenwald school drives more investment.
"In today's times, people are searching for roots and a connection and things important to our history," he said. Gifford can be a "nice place to stop and reflect and welcome people to the Lowcountry."
Other communities working to turn a rediscovered Rosenwald school into a community center include St. George in rural Dorchester County, 60 miles from Gifford. It, too, was shrouded by kudzu and vines for decades and given to that town in 2014.
Those already restored include a school in Pine Grove, which is part of Richland County’s parks system.