Old Whittemore Academy
“You have to know the past to understand the present.”
Dr. Carl Sagan
The preservation of historical sites such as the former Whittemore Elementary School is fundamental to African-American History in Conway, South Carolina and Horry County. This institution played a major role in molding and shaping the lives of thousands of African American children in Horry County.
Whittemore Elementary School was built eighty-nine years after the end of slavery in this country. It was the first newly constructed Elementary School in Conway, S.C. built specifically to educate African-American students in First through Sixth grades. Presently, this building is among the few physical landmarks still standing that reflects our educational development.
Whittemore Academy, which was established in 1870, was located in its last location across the street from Whittemore Elementary School. Whittemore Academy had several name changes throughout history, including: Whittemore Academy, Whittemore Training School and Whittemore High School.
Whittemore Academy was the original school for all black students in Horry County and was a combination elementary and high school until 1954. Whittemore School was a combination elementary and high school until 1954, at which time Whittemore Elementary became a separate administrative unit. Prior to 1954, most Black only schools consisted on one or two room buildings in poor condition without indoor plumbing.
In reflecting upon the historical pathway of educational facilities in Conway for our children, we must give homage to the late Rev. Benjamin Franklin Whittemore, a Caucasian, from Boston, Massachusetts. He served in the U.S. Army as a Chaplain and later as Superintendent of Education for the Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina following the Civil War. He established about seventy schools and churches throughout South Carolina.
Recorded history shows that Rev. Whittemore and Rev. Richard H. Cain met in Marion, SC to collaborate out of concern for children of color, and funding was soon provided for a school and church in Conway, S.C. The school was called the Old Academy. Later, the school was named for Rev. Whittemore.
Rev. Whittemore served two terms in the SC House of Representatives and two years in the U.S. House of Representatives. After Reconstruction, he returned to Massachusetts to work as a publisher. Rev. Whittemore and his wife had two children. He died at age seventy on January 25, 1894 in Montvale, Massachusetts.
According to “History of South Carolina Schools” by Virginia Bartel, at the end of the Civil War, South Carolina’s former slaves found themselves emancipated and challenged to take on the responsibility of full American citizenship, including being able to vote and obtain a free education. The literacy rate among the freed slaves was approximately five percent. Many former slaves saw education as the key to improving their future.
The schools for black children included all grade levels under the same roof. Many of these schools included the word “training” due to a SC state law and the fact most schools included various education grades/levels under the same roof. Most schools were taught by one teacher, providing little time for individualized attention.
Most black students had to walk several miles to get to the closest school, which was often in poor condition. In 1941, nineteen of South Carolina’s counties did not have a high school for black students. Additionally, there were only eight buses in the entire state for the transportation of black students (Quint 1958:9).
Whittemore High School was awarded high school status in 1931. The first graduating class was in 1933, when tenth grade was the highest level of grade education. Later in 1933, the state added eleventh grade for a state high school diploma.
In 1936, the Whittemore Training School was moved from Race Path Ave to Highway 378 (originally known as Potato Bed Ferry Road). Colonel D.A. Spivey donated a little over four acres for the extension of the present site to include the Athletic Field, Bus Parking Area, Annex C, and the Shop for Industrial Arts.
The new school built in 1936 burned in 1944 and occupied temporary buildings until separate new elementary and high schools were completed in 1954.
Not only were schools unequal for black and white students, but the teacher pay was also unequal. In the 1940s the average annual salary for a white male elementary teacher was $998; for a white female $856; a black male was paid $411; and a black female was paid $372 (SCESC;1948).
In 1949, the twelfth grade was added for requirements of a high school diploma. The State of South Carolina began awarding high school diplomas to black students in 1929.
In 1950, Briggs vs. Elliott, a court case from Clarendon County, SC, challenged school segregation in South Carolina. It was the first of the five cases later combined into Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The U.S. Supreme Court stated racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. in the Brown vs Board of Education case.
In 1951, before the Brown vs Board of Education verdict was rendered, newly elected SC Govenor James Byrnes passed the first general sales tax to fund a statewide program for school construction and improvement for black and white schools in response to Briggs vs Elliott. This construction boom was an attempt to make black schools equal with white schools in South Carolina to justify schools segregated by race was good.
Whittemore High School was a combination elementary and high school until 1954, at which time Whittemore Elementary was created and became a separate educational unit. Whittemore Elementary moved into a new building in 1954, funded as part of a statewide initiative of South Carolina Equalization Schools. Whittemore Elementary was built for younger students in grades first thru sixth and Whittemore High School for older students in grades seventh thru twelfth.
Known SC Equalization Schools for black students in Conway, SC include: Bucksport Elementary School (1954) Cochran Elementary School (1954), Whittemore Elementary School Number 1 (1954) and Whittemore High School (1954). Schools were constructed for white students as well, including Hickory Grove Elementary School in Conway.
According to Mrs. Etrulia Dozier, Librarian at Whittemore High School and member of the Horry County Historical Society, in 1954, nineteen school buses transported black students from the following communities daily to Whittemore High: Pee Dee, Oak Grove, Shell, Nixonville, Maple, Good Hope, Adrian, Allendale, Bucksport, Klondike, Bucksville, Cochran, Sandridge, St. Paul, Socastee, Burgess, Murrells Inlet, Galivants Ferry, Aynor, Horry, Cool Springs, Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, Brown’s Swamp and Gravellys Gulley.
In 1954, the historic Brown vs The Board of Education US Supreme Court decision was reached, stating segregation was not allowed in public schools. Schools were ordered to desgregate and the decision helped inspire the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s.
In 1965, Myrtle Beach High School becomes the first school to be integrated. The first black students are: Martha Canty Gore, Iris Jones Vereen, Ronetta Spivey Bowens and Prince Bowens.
In 1966, the first black students attend Conway High School. Known as "The Whittemore Five", these students are: Michael Avant, Dr. Veronica Gerald Floyd, Michael Hughes, Lavernon Owens and Dr. Preston McKever Floyd.
In 1970, schools are segregated in South Carolina. Whittemore High School and Whittemore Elementary School are discontinued as black only schools and continue as integrated schools under various other names.
The former Whittemore Elementary school closed in 1977 and became the Horry County District Office until 2016. In 2018, Horry County Schools transferred ownership of the building to the City of Conway.
The City of Conway announced in 2017 intentions to convert the empty building into a community center. Patience was requested for the project.
In 2021, the City of Conway announced a new decision had been made to demolish Whittemore Elementary School using $500,000 of federal funds as the building was "beyond repair and would take $14 - $20 million to renovate". This decision deeply grieved and upset Whittemore Alumni and supporters.
The history of Whittemore Elementary School and Whittemore High School in undeniable. Whittemore Elementary School is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is worth saving!
Credit and Special Thanks to the Horry County Historical Society, South Carolina Archives, Historian Rebekah Dobrasko and her website, "SC Equalization Schools" , the City of Conway, SC and "History of South Carolina Schools" by Virginia Bartel in the research and writing of the History of Whittemore Schools.