As recently as last year, a book detailing how to best educate young African-American girls spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. That question was first asked in Beaufort, and the pioneering work done there is finally getting its due.
Largely forgotten by historians, Rachel Crane Mather’s arrival in post-Civil War Beaufort in 1867 changed the landscape of the entire South. What the Boston-based schoolteacher attempted to answer in coming to South Carolina was how to go about educating newly-freed female African-Americans, a segment of society considered an afterthought at best.
The answer came in the form of the Mather School, a boarding school that opened a scant six years after Penn Center but had as its goal educating the daughters of former slaves. Initially, it received financial support from the Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society and catered to elementary-aged girls.
High school grades were added in the 1910’s and it became a junior college in the 1950’s. By 1968 the final class had graduated and the property was transferred to Beaufort County. The campus and buildings eventually morphed into the present-day Technical College of the Lowcountry.
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As rich and, frankly, unique as that legacy is, it’s still not as tangible as it could be. Thankfully, this week’s opening of the Mather Interpretive Center changes all that.
“This is an amazing story that people just don’t seem to know about,” said Greg Rawls, one of the Beaufort Arts Council members tasked with designing the center. TCL generously offered the building that formerly served as the Mather School Library to house the site.
“What we want is for this Beaufort story to be more than just a sign by the road,” said Rawls.
Rawls, who also works as a set designer at USCB’s Center for the Performing Arts, worked alongside arts council co-chair Diane Dunham Griffin to setup the initial museum displays. Mather School alumni donated artifacts and memorabilia while helping oversee the project’s grant, which was awarded by Beaufort businessman Dick Stewart.
The museum features photographs of the school and its founder, a film from the 1940s and more recent videos of Mather School alumni sharing their stories of success.
What’s missing, however, is the collection of materials currently housed at Benedict College. These include historical documents such as Rachel Crane Mather’s letters. The Mather Interpretive Center here is still trying to acquire them.
“As we get more artifacts, we’ll make it more complete,” said Rawls.
Let’s hope that happens. Beaufort is riding a cultural wave of museum openings and bona fide efforts to preserve our rich history, especially in relation to the many innovative programs begun here during the Reconstruction Era. The Mather Interpretive Center could be the centerpiece of that Reconstruction monument.
Though the alumni of the Mather School still gather every spring for a reunion, the class size dwindles each year and there is little beyond a collection of memories to cling to. This center addresses that, making those memories permanently available through preservation.
“The realization that the untold story of Mather School, its significance and contributions to American history, African-American history and Beaufort’s history is finally uncovered and visible, ensures that future generations will be empowered by the knowledge of its existence and the impact it had in the Beaufort community,” said Alvesta Robertson, a librarian at Mather School from 1963-1968 and a charter member of the Mather School Coastal Lowcountry Alumni and Associates chapter.
Rachel Crane Mather might not have foreseen a time when people would appreciate her ideas on educating young African American women. The students who came through the school — those who were taught that their ambitions mattered, that their lives existed beyond their surroundings and that their parents’ sacrifices to get them educated were worth the effort — likely didn’t think about being studied by future generations.
Now, though, that study has a starting point.
Right here in Beaufort.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.