Lessons from one-room schoolhouses still ringing on Hilton Head Island

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJanuary 25, 2014 

Phoebe Driessen is shown at the recent unveiling of historical marker at Cherry Hill School.

DAVID LAUDERDALE — The (Hilton Head) Island Packet,


    Teachers dating to the days before Hilton Head Island had a bridge who were honored Jan. 18 by the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island:

    Melvin Albertgottie; Rosalie Badger; Hannah Barnwell; Rosalie Barnwell; Julia Brinson; Sarah Brown; Julia Campbell; Reginald Campbell; Sarah Campbell; Solomon Campbell; Phoebe Driessen ; Earlene Frazier; Mary Houston; The Rev. Charles Houston Sr.; Ruth Jones; Mrs. Lucas; Jannie White Mitchell; Johnnie Mitchell; Readell Myers; Dorothy Palmore

    Also, Alexandria Patterson; Lucinda Patterson; Anna Riley; Rosa Simmons; Diogenese Singleton; Isaac Wilborn; Romona Wilborn; Cyrus G. Wiley; Annette Wright; Christine Wright; Olivia Wright; Dorothy Johnson Williams

Old-time teachers on an old-time Hilton Head Island finally got called to the head of the class last week.

The names of 31 educators who worked from the early 1900s until the bridge was built in 1956 were recited at the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island's annual banquet.

Johnnie Patterson Mitchell called it the era "when the curtain shut."

It was after slavery and forced illiteracy were destroyed, after the Union soldiers left, after the missionary teachers went back up North. It was when the Gullah left behind were either going to sink or swim on their own wit and wisdom.

Mitchell, who made the presentations, said: "We latched onto the belief that if we had faith in God, gave our children a good education, and worked hard we would survive."

Cash-starved islanders found a way to supplement teacher pay, house teachers, build schools and add time to the school year. About half a dozen one- or two-room schools dotted the island, at first covering five grades and later seven.

Teachers were sometimes paid with sweet potatoes.

Some may have had only a little bit of high school education themselves. Others could act as lawyers and editors. Teachers, then as now, also served as quasi social services agents, filling a child's need for socks as well as long division.

And when a child came to the end of the island course, parents had to double down on their sacrifice if they wanted their child to continue in school. They had to scrape together money and put the child in a big bateau filled with suitcases for the choppy row across the water to the Mather School in Beaufort, the Penn School on St. Helena Island, the "Shanklin School" in Burton, or a school in Savannah.

As the roll was called at the banquet, one thing was clear. The teachers are still loved.


Phoebe Driessen was singled out for a special honor. She was cited as a pioneering pre-school teacher in a program that predated by two years the national Head Start program.

"Head Start, as I see it, started right here on Hilton Head," said Thomas C. Barnwell Jr., who as a child left one of the small island schools to attend Penn School. "I am glad the community is saying 'thank you' to Mrs. Driessen for her pioneering effort that had something to do with a broader spectrum of life."

Driessen taught first-graders to read for more than 30 years on her native Hilton Head before retiring in 1984. She was born in the Mitchelville area into the Wiley family, which already included Cyrus G. Wiley, the second president of Savannah State University.

She graduated from Mather after attending the Cherry Hill School, built by islanders in 1937 at the urging of her father, Arthur "Conrad" Wiley. It is the island's only surviving neighborhood Gullah school. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and now has a historical marker out front on Dillon Road.

After the island schools were consolidated into a red brick building in 1954, principal Isaac W. Wilborn told superintendent H.E. McCracken that he needed to get children into the school before the first grade.

McCracken and the school board agreed to let him try something. Naturally, Phoebe Driessen was the teacher. It was seen as a statewide model in the summer of 1963. People from Columbia came to study it, Wilborn said. He was asked to write a report on it, which he called "Bridging the Gap Between the Home and the School." In 1965, it was replaced by Head Start.


Wilborn said the little clapboard island schools benefited from their close ties to the people.

"They had a strong disciplinary system in the community," he said. "It's amazing, even to me, the accomplishments of some of those islanders."

Louise Cohen, founder of the Gullah Museum on Wild Horse Road, said what stands out to her is the sacrifice of the teachers and the appreciation of the teachers from the community.

Some families -- such as the Campbells, Wrights and Pattersons -- produced multiple generations of island teachers.

Johnnie Mitchell was taught by Phoebe Driessen in the Chaplin community school. Then she was the aide for Driessen in that first pre-school class in the summer before she went off to Spelman College in Atlanta.

"Against long odds, they prepared us, and sent us out into the world," Mitchell said.

She said it's a lesson students in today's fancy schools need to learn.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

The Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island

Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration

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