When the Gullah community of Hilton Head Island needed a schoolhouse, it scraped together nickels, dimes and quarters for four dusty gray walls and a plot of land to build on.
The small Cherry Hill School, built in 1937 during the Great Depression, served as a symbol of education long after it closed in the 1950s and was bought by its Dillon Road neighbor, St. James Baptist Church.
When more than 100 people gathered at the church Friday, they unveiled and dedicated a plaque that said what they've known for years:
The one-room schoolhouse is a piece of history.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in late 2012, the schoolhouse is a reminder of Hilton Head Island's roots, said Charles Hamilton Sr., pastor of St. James Baptist Church.
"If walls could talk, they would tell us how a people only two or three generations removed from slavery exhibited the indomitable spirit God gives liberally to each of us," Hamilton said. "Today, we celebrate a people's vision to do what is truly important for their children and their children's children."
The building could have easily fallen into disrepair, as have nearly all of the Lowcountry's African-American schools of the same era, said Paul Sommerville, chairman of the Beaufort County Council.
"Language can be lost in two generations. Culture and history can also be lost," Sommerville said. "Cherry Hill School represents a small but important piece of Gullah-Geechee culture that can still be preserved."
When offers came to buy the Cherry Hill School, the church repeatedly turned them down and instead began restoring the property.
Today, it's used as a meeting room and weekly soup kitchen. But on Friday, with about a dozen graduates of the former elementary school present, its history was alive again.
"I'm touched by these students. History is in front of us," said Brad Bloom, rabbi of Congregation Beth Yam, sending a murmur through the crowd. "May this church and all who come here continue to thrive and may learning continue to flourish in this community."
The community still has a way to go in ensuring the preservation of Hilton Head's Mitchelville, the country's first self-governed settlement for freed slaves.
But Friday's dedication was a strong start that should be built on by the church, the county, the Mitchelville Preservation Project and every resident of Hilton Head Island, Mayor Drew Laughlin said.
"Some of them don't know the history yet, but we're going to tell them," he said. "Thanks to you, we're beginning to connect the dots of our heritage."
- Hilton Head's Cherry Hill School to get state marker, September 8, 2013
- Hilton Head schoolhouse recognized as historic site, December 8, 2012