Wilson helped create opportunities for children

Mayesville Educational and Industrial School built in 1800s

By SAMMY WAY
Posted 9/16/18

Reflections remembers the contributions of Emma Wilson to the field of education. This daughter of slaves incorporated her desire for knowledge to create institutions of learning to benefit those around her. She spent the majority of her life …

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Wilson helped create opportunities for children

Mayesville Educational and Industrial School built in 1800s

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Reflections remembers the contributions of Emma Wilson to the field of education. This daughter of slaves incorporated her desire for knowledge to create institutions of learning to benefit those around her. She spent the majority of her life motivating and assisting others; her main focus was to give those with limited assets the opportunity to succeed. She touched the lives of countless children by exposing them to the rewards of education and expanded their learning skills, which opened opportunities. The author used material and photos found in The Sumter Item archives and the Simmie Project No. 935 to prepare this article.

Emma Wilson was born in Mayesville in Sumter County and was the daughter of Venice Wilson, a slave before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Her desire to attend school prompted the empathy of her master's six-year-old boy, who attempted to teach her what he had learned. She soon learned the alphabet and developed her writing skills by copying envelopes found in a waste basket.

She attended the Goodwill Mission School, which required her to walk long distances (7 miles) to and from this beacon of opportunity. After three years at Goodwill, she was selected by her teachers to attend Scotis Seminary in Concord, North Carolina, due to her outstanding level of work. Her dream was to become a missionary to Africa; however, the school president decided she should remain and complete her course of study. Emma didn't go to Africa but returned to Mayesville, using her educational skills to assist those in great need.

Emma Wilson was determined to build a school for children who were eager to learn. She initially held classes in an abandoned gin house with support coming from her friends. This assistance came in the form of books, chickens, eggs and various other provisions. Her mother aided her struggling daughter by cooking and selling finished goods to help raise money. The school continued to struggle, yet eventually grew (with community support) to include 15 teachers, six buildings and a farm consisting of 120 acres.

On Saturday, Aug. 27, 1898, the cornerstone was laid for the Mayesville Educational and Industrial School. "At 10 o'clock, there was a procession and grand review, which wound itself downtown to the African Methodist Church, where the program of the day was carried out. Afterward, the school children and several black societies marched to the beautiful lot upon which the school was to be built and with ceremonies proper to such occasions laid the cornerstone." The building is reputed to be "one of the handsomest buildings in Mayesville and will rank among the first institutions of learning for black people in South Carolina."

Dr. J. A. Mayes; W. D. Mayes, a prominent merchant; and Rev. J. E. Stevenson of the white Presbyterian Church of Mayesville constituted an advisory and finance committee. Their good judgement, sound advice and financing coupled with the splendid work of Emma J. Wilson, general traveling agent of the school, assured that Mayesville Educational and Industrial School would be a success. Mr. Joe E. Barnett, one of the largest property owners and business men of Mayesville, promised to contribute the furnace for the new school, which eliminated a considerable amount from the expense for furnishing the facility.

According to Dr. Anne King Gregorie, Emma Wilson seems to have been the only black woman publisher in Sumter County. She hoped that her school at Mayesville would become another Tuskegee. Wilson's most famous pupil was Mary McLeod Bethune.

Miss Wilson published a "small monthly of four to eight pages, about eight inches by 15 inches, printed by the Osteen Printing Co."

Emma Wilson died in 1924, but the school continued and was eventually incorporated into a modern elementary school in the county, according to Cassie Nicholes' Historical Sketches of Sumter County.