After the Civil War, emancipated blacks viewed education as their path to a hopeful future in a country that had long deprived them of their right to learn.

While philanthropic efforts through the Rosenwald Fund helped start many black schools in the early 1900s, several black communities didn't wait long after the Civil War in the late 1800s to pool their resources and build private schoolhouses.

Historians don't know how many of these schools, which predated the Rosenwald grant system, existed. Many of the buildings were destroyed after the schools consolidated in the 1900s.

“We don’t have an accurate count of how many there were," said Dr. Larry Watson, a historian at South Carolina State University. “There’s no way to know how many of those early schools were lost.”

Some have been saved. An example is the Cherry Hill Classroom in Berkeley County, which has been repurposed as a community center. For African-American communities, preserving the sites is preserving the legacy of people who persisted through oppression.

Historic Black Schools

The original door for the Cherry Hill Classroom leans against the wall of the school that was used from 1876 to 1955. The Cherry Hill Community Center now occupies the African American School located on Old Cherry Hill Road in Moncks Corner. Brad Nettles/Staff

'Real Community'

Slave literacy was illegal in South Carolina, leading to only about 5% of former slaves being able to read after the Civil War.

Blacks saw education as the key to sustaining their freedom, and they elected African-American leaders who represented their interests during Reconstruction. The state passed a new constitution in 1868 that made public education free for black and white students.

Nineteenth century organizations like the Freedmen's Bureau provided food, housing and medical aid, and established schools throughout the South. Residents consolidated their resources and founded their own one-room schoolhouses.

The Cherry Hill Classroom, located on Old Cherry Hill Road in the historically African-American community, dates to 1876. The one-room wooden church doubled as a classroom to serve first- through sixth-graders.

The school became public in the early 20th century and operated until the 1950s when many rural schools were consolidated.

Yvonne Knight-Carter grew up in Cherry Hill. She recalls the historically black community as a close-knit area where neighbors shared produce from their gardens. Several grocery stores populated the area.

“It was a real community," she said. "We don’t see much of that anymore. We wish it could be that way again."

Knight attended the one-room classroom one year before it closed. The bell signaled the start of the school day. She walked from her home into a packed room where all grade levels sat together.

Knight said many students from the school went on to serve as teachers, principals, librarians and in the military.

Historic Black Schools

An old plow, windows and lantern sits on the porch of he Cherry Hill Community Center that has taken the space of the original Cherry Hill Classroom. The African American School was used from 1876 to 1955. Brad Nettles/Staff

Many of the historic schools, like Cherry Hill, were tied to churches.

In Edgefield County, Bettis Academy was established in 1881. Named after the Rev. Alexander Bettis, the school was founded by black ministers. Courses were taught in religion, home economics, farming and standard academic subjects.

In the 20th century, even in the face of Jim Crow, efforts to educate black children continued.

Between 1917 and 1936, more than 5,000 schools for African-American children were built throughout the South through the efforts of renowned educator Booker T. Washington and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. 

Several rural black schools either consolidated into larger ones or merged with Rosenwald schools in the 1900s.

Preservation efforts

Historians don't know how many black schools are still standing in the state. Work to identify the schools are ongoing by the S.C. African American Heritage Commission.

Recent reports indicate that several schools are in bad shape.

The commission's 2016 report of historic black schools in 15 counties found at least six across the state that are not in use and suffer "advanced deterioration."

Four are in Fairfield County — Fairfield Training, Mitford Elementary, Gordon Elementary, White Hall Elementary — and one is Lee County — Mount Pleasant High School.

“The lack of use is the enemy of their survivability," said Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of Preservation SC. "The ones still being used are very few and far between.”

While some of the schools, like Bettis Academy, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, efforts to preserve a lot of the early schools have mostly fallen on the shoulders of alumni and members of the community who raise funds and petition local governments.

Just as residents united centuries ago to start the schools, it will take a community effort to save them.

For decades, the Cherry Hill school remained unused until residents raised money through fish fries and banquets to renovate the structure and open it as a museum in 2011. Years later, the center received $20,000 in accommodations tax funds to install an auxiliary building for meetings and events on the property. Today, a nonprofit oversees the South Carolina Historical Landmark site.

Wooden pews, a chalk board and old fire stove serve as reminders of the old days.

Historic Black Schools

An old fire stove is similar to the one that heated the Cherry Hill Classroom from 1876 to 1955. The Cherry Hill Community Center now occupies the African American School located on Old Cherry Hill Road in Moncks Corner. Brad Nettles/Staff

But trouble is looming. Knight-Carter said the building's exterior is becoming weather-worn. Woodpeckers bore holes through the wood. Oyster roasts and banquets are current sources of funding.

“That’s going to be the challenge — raising and having enough funds to keep it going," she said. "We try to think as many different ways to get this done.”

Butler High School, one of the early black public schools in Harstville, was nearly sold in the early 1990s before community members petitioned the school board to deed the property to the city. The Butler Heritage Foundation was established to repurpose the school as a community center. Today, there's a gymnasium, Head Start program and services for senior citizens on the property.

Jannie Harriot, chairwoman of the S.C. African American Heritage Commission, was the board's founding chair and a Butler High graduate. 

"It’s where we grew up," she said. "It's where we learned to be who we are.”

Next month in Dorchester County, workers will begin revitalizing the St. George Colored School — a Rosenwald institution that opened to students in 1925.

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