'Shanklin School' filled a void that can't be measured

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comAugust 18, 2013 

The student body of the Port Royal Agricultural and Industrial School in 1906.

A remarkable era for Beaufort County closed with the recent death of Thelma Shanklin West of Beaufort.

She was the last surviving child of Joseph S. and India Shanklin, who came to the county from Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute at the turn of the 20th century to teach in the new Port Royal Agricultural and Industrial School.

The school in rural Burton was founded by Northern abolitionist and prominent Beaufort citizen Abbie Holmes Christensen at the suggestion of African-American minister Paul Watson of Beaufort.

Its mission was "to teach these poverty-stricken folks how to farm intelligently ... and to instruct the girls in cooking, sewing and general housekeeping. ... In the school room instruction is given in reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and farming."

Along with the Mather School for girls in Beaufort and the Penn School on St. Helena Island, the privately supported school out in the country helped fill the educational gap for African Americans that neither the state nor county would.

Historian Monica Maria Tetzlaff writes in her book about Christensen -- "Cultivating a New South" -- that the school cut sharply against the grain during an era in which South Carolina's governor proudly proclaimed that blacks must remain subordinate or be exterminated.

A LIFE'S WORK

Thelma Shanklin West was 99 years, 9 months and 5 days old when she died July 14 in Beaufort.

Like her brothers Joseph Jr. and Foch, she got a college degree and was a career educator.

She was known for her spunk and careful attention to health.

When The Beaufort Gazette wrote a story about her exercise regimen, she said: "I'm 90, retired and stubborn."

Her best friend, Marianne Chenault, said she was sharp and involved until shortly before her death.

Thelma got the spirit of lifelong learning and service to others from her parents -- both from poor, rural Alabama farming families.

Thelma was born at the school, located near today's Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. It grew to about 150 students on a campus of 900 acres with two barns, two dormitories, a power plant, a library, a store and buildings for lessons in trades, including carpentry, bricklaying and printing.

Thelma's parents devoted their lives to what was always known as the Shanklin School, even after it became the Beaufort County Training School in 1920.

As for Abbie Holmes Christensen, one of her great-grandchildren, Anne Christensen Pollitzer, founded the EC Montessori and Grade School in Beaufort. Another great-grandchild, Paul Sommerville, is chairman of Beaufort County Council.

'FILLED A VOID'

Jacob Martin of Bluffton enrolled at Shanklin in 1942 as a boarding student. At the time, public school for blacks ended with the seventh grade in Bluffton.

There he would study Othello and Dickens, as well as work the farm. He would meet his wife, Ida, and go on to get a college degree and a master's degree. He had a career in law enforcement in Michigan and became head of security for an international corporation. After retiring and moving home to Bluffton, Martin was an administrator with the Beaufort County School District, and Ida started Bluffton Self Help in their garage. Its work aiding the poor was honored shortly before Ida's death by President Barack Obama.

Jacob Martin said Joseph Shanklin Sr. cut a figure in the county like that of Martin Luther King Jr.

"Mr. Shanklin filled a void you can't measure," he said. "It would have been a thousand times worse than it was, and to some extent still is. I shudder to think, if it weren't for Shanklin School, what would have happened to me."

The Shanklin name lives on in the Joseph S. Shanklin Elementary School in Burton. The land for the old school was sold years ago, with proceeds providing college scholarships for local African-Americans. Only one dilapidated building remains. And now all the children of Joseph and India Shanklin are gone.

The least we could do is erect a historical marker.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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