We ought to put up a statue of W. Kent Alston, who beat the odds in Jim Crow Beaufort.
He wasn’t from here, but he was principal of Beaufort’s all-black Robert Smalls High School for about a quarter of a century.
It was a time when his school and all its students were considered second class by society. State law and local standards bent over backward to make sure it was so.
But “Professor” Kent Alston didn’t seem to have time for all that.
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His son told me that, on a scale of one to 10, his father always wanted 11.
He saw higher horizons and pushed his students in grades one through 12 to do the same.
The most amazing thing he did was to bring black superstars to Beaufort to show students what they could become if they would only believe and try harder.
Marian Anderson, Joe Louis, Lionel Hampton (with the school’s own Edward Pazant Jr. in the band), Paul Robeson, Mary McLeod Bethune, the Harlem Globetrotters, Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays, Howard University president Mordecai Johnson, tenor Roland Hayes, Clara Ward and the Famous Ward Singers, and the Wings Over Jordan Choir came to little Beaufort.
Robert Smalls served most of northern Beaufort County from 1925 to 1970, when it was converted to a junior high school when school integration was forced on the county by the threat of losing federal funds. The school, on the site of today’s Beaufort County Courthouse, was named for the ex-slave from Beaufort who became a Civil War hero, five-term congressman, a military general and political “king of Beaufort County” during Reconstruction.
Alston was principal from 1937 until shortly before his death in 1962 at age 51.
He didn’t march around in a robe or uniform to put down others. He marched around in a business suit to respectfully build up our community.
“When I was employed here at Robert Smalls,” Alston wrote near the end of his life, “there were no lights in the classrooms of the now Junior High School. Each afternoon, I went to work to get this done. This material was paid for by various parties: for extra light in the chapel, extra light in the hallway, extra floor sockets in the chapel — total $100.”
He had to install a sink for the science laboratory, a telephone (number 189-L), a clock and fan in each classroom, and shades and blinds in the chapel. He bought the first movie projector in a county school and a television for educational programs.
He modernized the Home Economics Department by installing a hot-water tank, large sink, 20 white-top tables for students to cook, along with kitchen equipment. “The amount was $1,000, and $500 came from Fordham Hardware Store,” he said.
“The first typewriters were bought by ‘drives’ to begin typing class,” Alston wrote. “Typing was suggested by Mr. B.F. Bostick in the place of French. He felt it would be more helpful. Students began paying $1 per month. We bought the first machine for $3.”
Money for the constant painting of the chapel and hallways also came from yearly fund-raising drives.
He bought newspaper and magazine subscriptions from school funds for library use. “Friends contributed books until the county started giving a little,” he said.
And he added flourishes: a baby grand piano and Hammond organ were purchased for $3,000. “This was the first organ in any high school, colored or white, in the Southeast,” Alston said.
They also added breakfast, which increased attendance and decreased dropouts.
Besides being principal, Alston drove the school bus for 2 1/2 years for the children of Port Royal and Burton. These students walked to school every morning until the Parent-Teacher Association decided to buy a bus to pick them up, he said. His driving allowed the money that would be paid a driver ($55 per month) to go toward buying the bus. “After 2 1/2 years, Robert Smalls was to own the bus, but it was sold when the state took over transporting black students to school,” he said.
He built the first athletic field for night games at a cost of $4,500. “We were the first colored high school with football lights in South Carolina, in 1940,” he said.
He organized the first band, begging for donated instruments and charging a fee to pay for a full-time band teacher. “Our band was the only colored one from this section to participate in the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
He organized a Veterans (Trade) School that ran from June 1948 to March 1953, teaching building trades to 300 veterans and pumping well more than $100,000 into local businesses for equipment and supplies.
They built a teacherage, paid for by rent charged to the teachers. They helped build a gymnasium, pre-fabricated classrooms and campus walkways.
The veterans also gave an average of 75 pints of blood each time the blood bank came to Beaufort from 1948 to 1952.
The school also hosted a USO for black servicemen. And Alston organized a teenage canteen for Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons with a teacher on duty.
In the community, Alston was co-captain of election day from 1948 to 1962 and chaired many charitable drives.
And at the request of Solicitor Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., he stepped in to help “save” 11 boys to keep them from going to the state penitentiary. He and his wife, Mayme Eady Alston, who had three children of their own, would take custody of the boys for four years, supplying their clothes and other needs.
His life, now all but forgotten, reveals the big lie of white supremacy.
With all the talk of tearing down statues, we should consider adding a few.