Sumter's schools have rich history

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The history of education and schools in the settlement that became Sumter is very rich. Recounting the extensive story of the development and creation of the area's schools, with illustrations, requires two parts and will conclude next week on April 30.

According to research those lands in 1682, which became Sumter District, were once a part of the expansive Craven County, a portion of the South Carolina colony. Schools and educational facilities in this area did not exist at this juncture. It was noted that by 1706 Craven County had expanded from its original 35 miles inland from the Atlantic shore to almost reach the border of North Carolina. This land was "broken up into parishes which elected representatives who served in the provincial Commons House. What is now Sumter County was included in the St. Mark's Parish, and by 1740 settlers were gradually infiltrating the area along the eastern side of the Wateree and around Black River in the vicinity of Salem."

The earliest teachers comprised a number of ministers and Wood Furman, a surveyor, who tutored a large number of eager youngsters. Furman followed his profession while teaching youngsters in High Hills, near Stateburg. The ministers who doubled as schoolmasters were the Rev. Charles Woodmason, of St. Mark's and the Rev. Dr. Thomas Reese of Salem Black River (Brick Church). Presbyterian members erected a log meeting house, the first such structure known constructed in St. Mark's Parish in 1759, with St. Mark's having a completed rectory in 1767. "Sometime before 1800 three counties - Claremont, Clarendon and Salem - were formed in this area, and the Sumter District was organized to unite these three counties on the first day of January in 1800. Sumterville had become a village three years before."

"Little is known of the early schools in Sumterville, according to Gregorie's 'History of Sumter County.' In 1827, Maj. Thomas Theus opened the Sumter Military, Gymnastic and Classical School on Harvin Street. Thomas Baker, Thomas Dugan and John Mayrant seem to have had a share in this enterprise. Cost was not to exceed $300 a year for each student." For the girls, Mrs. J. Chester, formerly of New London, Connecticut, announced in the same year that the Young Ladies Seminary would open in Sumterville. Manchester also had a school sometime prior to 1856, and in Lynchburg, the Lynchburg Academy for boys opened in 1856.

During the early days of the Sumter District, many of the first schools were "the old field schools," or log cabins located on abandoned fields. Most early settlers stipulated in their wills that their children would be educated. In 1798, the Clarendon Orphan Society was chartered to establish a public school to prevent helpless orphans from growing up illiterate. The South Carolina free-school law was enacted in 1811, and John B. Miller, a member of the Free School Commission for Claremont District, later donated land specifically for the construction of public schools. This land was referred to as "The Greens or Academic Square."

"In 1857, the report of W.F.B. Haynsworth, secretary-treasurer of the board, shows 52 free schools in the Sumter District with 589 pupils, with eight of these located in Sumter, including the largest with an enrollment of 37. Each pupil was required to pay five cents a day, $3 a quarter or $6 a session. The state appropriated $1,800 with the patrons paying $796.91, so the total school budget for Sumter District in 1857 was less than $2,600."

Throughout the antebellum era, private schools were the mainstay of education. The wealthy plantation owners made extensive use of tutors to educate their children. The three "R's" was the primary extent of most children's education. This concept was taught at numerous academies which flourished at this time. "Among these were Sandville Academy, between Stateburg and Pinckney's Ferry; Lodebar Academy; Mount Clio Academy, near Salem Black River; Bishopville Academy, Providence, Plowden Mills, Mayesville, Swimming Pens, St. Paul; also, Friendship and Summerton Academies."

"Stateburg, Bradford Springs and Sumterville were particularly favored for boarding schools. Dr. John M. Robert's Academy near Stateburg received funds from the Baptist State Convention for the education of ministerial students. After his death, Furman Academy was established at Edgefield to carry on this work. Furman soon relocated in the High Hills, then went to Fairfield and finally was chartered in 1850 as Furman University in Greenville."

Sources for this article are a 1959 story titled "History of Local Schools" by Item writer John Mitchell, and the writings of Cassie Nicholes and Anne King Gregorie. Photos are from The Sumter Item Archives and members of the Sumter community.

Reach Sumter Item Archivist Sammy Way at waysammy@yahoo.com or (803) 774-1294.