Quintessentially Lowcountry: Educating freed slaves was the foundation of today's Beaufort colleges

May 14, 2010 

Long before the Technical College of the Lowcountry began training computer programmers and green-building technicians, the daughters of newly freed slaves learned to read, write and manage a household on the college's campus on the banks of the Beaufort River.

Founded by Rachel Crane Mather of Boston in 1868, the Mather School served black families from Beaufort and across the United States for 100 years before it was given to the state for use as a technical school.

It closed in 1968 after serving as a boarding school for black girls and a coed junior college, but the more than 350 students who graduated from TCL on Friday night saw evidence of the school's legacy.

Four buildings from the Mather School still stand on TCL's Beaufort campus. Three -- Owen, Anderson and Coleman halls -- house offices, a testing center and student services, said spokeswomen Leigh Copeland.

Renovations soon will begin on the fourth, Moor Hall, built in 1939. About $190,000 in federal money has been set aside to restore the roof and part of the exterior, Copeland said.

"It's through Rachel Crane Mather, our founder, that we are filled in the spirit of making a difference in people," said Thomas Leitzel, TCL president. "She was a hero with a vision and commitment to making life better through education. ... The Mather School legacy continues to guide and inspire us as we remain dedicated to all Lowcountry citizens seeking better lives through education."

In 2001, a new tower was dedicated to house the school's historic bell that was used to call students to activities such as meals or chapel time. Annually, members of school's alumni association return to the campus to reunite and ring the Mather bell.

LEARNING LIFE SKILLS

The Mather School was one of several efforts to educate freed slaves and their families in South Carolina in the years during and after the Civil War. Penn School, founded six years earlier, was one of the first schools in the country for freed slaves.

"The realization that was formed very quickly, and some of that came from the Penn experience, was now that these individuals are no longer in servitude, there needs to be some sort of mechanism that can move them to the point where they can participate in the American experience," said Michael Allen of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, an area designated by Congress to preserve Gullah history and traditions.

Many of the more formal schools -- including Mather and Penn schools -- were started by women who came from the north and were supported by missionaries and other religious or philanthropic organizations, said Rosalyn Browne, director of history and culture at the Penn Center. Other smaller community schools might have been housed in churches, she said.

When Rachel Mather came to Beaufort in 1867, she expected to train teachers to educate former slaves. But so few people in Beaufort were qualified for such a school, she began by teaching basic household skills, according to a history provided by the TCL Foundation.

For the first several years, she taught women how to sew, cook and launder while children practiced spelling and simple math.

The women, who might have worked in cotton or tobacco fields all their lives, learned the skills needed to stabilize their lives, said Natalie Mallory, president of the Mather School National Alumni Association.

"They had to be taught to read and how to write and how to do arithmetic, and they also had to be taught an organized sense of responsibility," she said.

BUILDING CHARACTER

Over the next several decades, the school evolved. A high school program was approved in 1932, and Mather School opened an accredited junior college and began admitting men in the 1950s.

The Mather School was one of the oldest boarding schools for black women in the country and drew students from across the United States, Mallory said. She came to the school from Virginia in 1952.

Students at Mather received an interdisciplinary education. In addition to core academic subjects, they learned an appreciation for the arts and other skills, such as etiquette and home economics.

Mallory remembers learning to play the piano and dressing in evening gowns and gloves to see contralto Marian Anderson perform. The quality of education was extraordinary, she said.

Irene Hicks, president of the Mather School's Coastal/Lowcountry Alumni and Associates Chapter, graduated from the junior college in 1967. The girls who boarded would visit churches throughout Beaufort on Sundays, she said.

"The school was really a part of the community," she said. "There was a field house where people from the north would send clothing and other articles down to the school. People from Beaufort could purchase those things and that would help to fund the school."

The school built character, said Vernell Thompson Young, who graduated in 1960. Students were assigned industrial work -- such as helping out in the kitchen or with the laundry -- in addition to their academic studies.

"We had Bible classes," she said. "We were taught the social graces. We had chapel in the mornings."

The students also formed close relationships with each other and the faculty, as they all lived together in the dormitories, said Alvesta Robertson, who was the school's librarian for its last five years. She married while working at the school and she said all of her students -- two busloads -- came to her wedding at Old Fort Baptist Church in Port Royal.

Alumni said they now look forward to the annual bell-ringing event and the opportunity it offers to reconnect.

"Hearing the sound of that bell really sends thrills up your back," Robertson said.

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