ST. GEORGE – Part of South Carolina’s history was hidden for years under vines and trees.

A school that served hundreds of Black children in St. George was waiting for rebirth.

The St. George Rosenwald School, also known as Williams Memorial High School, is serving as a beacon in the community once again thanks to a years-long restoration project

“It’s always exciting,” said Ralph James, chairman of the St. George Rosenwald School board of directors.

“I’ve spent most of my life in volunteer services, helping out when I could, and this is just another adventure – maybe the last venture in a lot of volunteer service because this has really taken quite a bit over the years here,” James said.

The 76-year-old James attended the school in 1953 and part of 1954, when the school closed after the state built an “equalization school” nearby.

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The Rosenwald school was built between 1925 and 1926, James said. The school originally went up to the 10th grade, and was later expanded to 12th grade.

On Aug. 8, the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina held a board meeting in the school’s auditorium. News media and dignitaries were invited to attend and tour the school.

Edisto Electric Cooperative played a significant role in the school’s restoration.

EEC Chairman Doug Reeves is also the vice chairman of the St. George Rosenwald School board of directors.

Reeves and James have been working together for years on the restoration project.

They were awarded the Order of the Palmetto, presented by Gov. Henry McMaster’s Chief of Staff Trey Walker, at the school.

The St. George Rosenwald School is one of nearly 5,000 built in the American South around 100 years ago.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, only about one-tenth of those schools remain today.

The schools took on the name of their chief financial supporter, Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932). He was a part-owner and eventual president of Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Prominent Black educator Dr. Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), founder of what is now known as Tuskegee University, created a program to build community schools for Black students.

Washington reached out to Rosenwald about assisting with funding for the building of community public schools in 1912.

Rosenwald agreed.

Community members, mainly those who were Black, raised funds to erect the schools. Rosenwald would provide a generous supplement to offset the costs of the new school.

By the time of Rosenwald’s death, he’d given $20 million to his foundation to build schools and $4 million more to other African American education and welfare causes.

In today’s money, that’s worth about $440 million.

Clara Mac Dixon Britt, a 101-year-old from the Texas Community just outside of St. George, was in the first class to graduate from the school in 1949.

Out in the Texas Community, Black students went to school in a simple building that was in need of repair. It didn’t run for as many months as the St. George Rosenwald School.

Britt alternated between the schools, returning to the St. George Rosenwald School for eighth grade. There were 108 children who began eighth grade with her.

Her teacher told the students that only 11 of them would complete the 12th grade.

“And she was right,” Britt said.

Britt and other students from the Texas Community had to walk miles to get to the St. George Rosenwald School.

On one occasion, Britt rode a bull to the school.

She was eventually given a car to drive to school and she took several students with her each time.

Ordie Columbus Brown graduated from the school with Britt.

He lived about eight miles from the school in the St. Mark Community.

“The only way to get to school was to walk or catch a ride,” he said.

He said, “My father was fortunate enough to buy an older school bus and getting that school bus, I was able to drive that bus for the St. Mark Community, bringing children from there, here to the school.”

One year, the school’s basketball team won a local competition, Brown said. The team was then scheduled to play in a tournament in Myrtle Beach.

The St. George Rosenwald School had a basketball court made of dirt, not an indoor gym with a wooden floor. The Myrtle Beach tournament would take place in an indoor gym.

“I was one of the ones to go over to the high school – the white high school – and ask the superintendent or principal if we could practice on the wood floor so that when we got to the tournament, we would know how to play ball,” he said.

“They refused,” he added.

Today, the location of the St. George Rosenwald School’s basketball court is covered with brick.

“You all are to be complimented in this community,” U.S. Congressman James Clyburn said.

“Thank you for coming together and preserving this history,” he said.

“We shouldn’t run away from our history. Our history is what it is. We should honor that history. We should learn from that history and we should always educate ourselves to make sure those things of our history that were good – let’s preserve it. Those things that were not so good, let’s eliminate them. But let’s come together and go forward into the future making sure that we honor the blood, sweat and tears of those who made this community what it is today,” he said.

Former state senator John Matthews said, “This has exceeded my expectations.”

Matthews is among a list of current and former elected officials who helped secure funding to restore the school.

Others include: Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg; Sen. Vernon Stephens, D-Bowman; former St. George mayor Anne Johnston; former state representative Patsy Knight and St. George Mayor Kevin Hart.

The St. George Rosenwald School is nearly ready to start serving the community again.

The school is designed with an auditorium in the middle of two classroom wings.

The south wing has been restored as classrooms, much like they appeared when they functioned as a school.

The north wing, however, has been restored for community spaces.

The school has partnered with the Children’s Museum of the Low Country to install interactive exhibits and displays.

The children’s museum portion of the school is expected to open in February 2024.

The exhibits will not only tell the story of what it was like to be a student at the school, but the role the school served after it closed in 1954.

For a time in the 1960s, the vacated school served as headquarters for the Congress of Racial Equality, also known as CORE.

It also housed the Farmers’ Home Program and operated as a Head Start school, too.

Bathrooms have been added to the school, which weren’t part of its original plan.

When the school was in use for its original purpose, students had an outdoor block building as restroom facilities.

The school also has central heating and air conditioning. Neither were part of the original school.

A woodstove is seen in one of the classrooms. Chimneys are also visible throughout parts of the building.

Rosenwald schools were typically designed with tall windows in each classroom.

Early versions of the Rosenwald schools didn’t include electricity. The tall windows ensured ample natural light shined into classrooms, which improved students’ learning environments.

A breezeway has also been included at the rear of the school. A breezeway wasn’t original to the school plan.

The St. George Rosenwald School board of directors is working to acquire additional acreage next door for a walking trail, amphitheater and additional parking.

The St. George Rosenwald School will hold an official grand opening next month.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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