Old Allen School traces its roots to school for freedmen's children

buildings civil rights historic

Abandoned 40 years ago and ignored by busy Stone Avenue traffic, the old schoolhouse perches awkwardly near Richland Cemetery. Yet thousands of black children once studied there, and its name — Allen — reverberates through Greenville's educational history.

Its long story begins in October 1865. Charles T. Hopkins, described by Freedmen's Bureau head John W. DeForest as "a full-blooded black from the low country," began teaching classes in reading and spelling to about 65 former slaves in rooms at the Goodlett Hotel, at the corner of Washington and Main streets.

The hotel had been commandeered by federal troops stationed in Greenville, but a year later, when it was returned to its owner, the school closed. Hopkins needed to find a new site, but he had no money. So the schoolmaster, a "meek, amiable, judicious, virtuous godly man, zealous for the good of the freedmen" (the words are DeForest's), asked the impoverished white community for help. It contributed $260 to convert a two-story wooden storehouse at the former State Military Works on Green Avenue into a school for black children.

Freedmen disassembled the building and transported it 2 miles across town to the north end of Laurens Street, to a site Hopkins leased from Randall Croft. The Freedmen's Bureau covered the cost of the lease, repairs, and materials, but could not legally pay for books or teachers' salaries.

In November the school reopened with 186 students whose textbooks were donated by a New York publisher. Two white teachers paid by a Methodist Missionary Society joined the school in January to teach American history and grammar. After several months of working without pay, Hopkins finally received a wage – $25 a month.

The "Bureau School" became the center of community life for the new freedmen and their children. Students got relief from lessons, according to DeForest, by "gleesome singing," and the school sponsored concerts and fairs to raise money for operating expenses.

The children and teachers celebrated May Day in 1867 with a parade up Main Street. It was accompanied by a military band and led by State Sen. James M. Allen, a stonecutter-turned-contractor who came to Greenville before the Civil War and had become an influential Republican politician. (He also was postmaster and county treasurer.)

A year later, in the summer of 1868, the Southern Enterprise reported that 430 students were enrolled and that a recent examination "was very creditable to both teachers and scholars." But creditable or not, the school was in danger because the Freedmen's Bureau would cease operations in December.

Furthermore, Hopkins, who had been a "voluntary exhorter" before the war, was deeply involved in beginning Greenville's first Methodist church for freedmen, Silver Hill Church (now John Wesley United Methodist Church), and was no longer principal. Silver Hill's northern Methodist supporters, however, remained deeply involved in the school, and they had recently sent a new principal to lead it when it became part of the new state system of public education.

The South Carolina Constitution of 1868 had established the system, and Sen. Allen seems to have been responsible for including the Greenville freedmen's school in it. Both state – J.K. Jillson, the superintendent of education — and church – the minister of Silver Hill – blessed the dedication ceremony on June 5, 1869, when the school was named for the senator.

(Unfortunately, the name was soon tarnished. Allen was indicted in 1873 for inflating costs on a construction contract. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, but later was pardoned. While he may have been innocent, he immediately fled north and never reappeared locally.)

Allen School was no longer on Laurens Street; it had been moved to an acre lot on Elford Street in the spring of 1869. (Until Church Street was extended in the 1950s, Elford edged the eastern side of Springwood Cemetery.) On Oct. 20, 1869, the Enterprise and Mountaineer noted that 2 acres at the northeast corner of Springwood Cemetery "adjoining the Colored School" had been "appropriated to the burials of colored persons." Greenville's first City Directory in 1876 locates "Allen College" on Elford Street "near the colored cemetery."

Writing in the 1920s, E.B. Holloway, a longtime lay leader at John Wesley Methodist Church, said that until Allen School became a part of the city school district, its principals were generally ministers at Silver Hill. Holloway lists 10, one of whom, L.M. Dunton, was later president of Claflin College.

In 1886, when the city school district was (finally) formed, and a bond issue passed to build two public schools for white children, Allen, which had been the only free public school, was brought into the city system as the only school for black children. In 1891, city school trustees agreed to build Union School on Markley Street for black children who lived in the West End. C.C. Scott, a graduate of Howard University who had been principal at Allen, was moved to the new school.

At the turn of the century, Allen served all black children on the north side of the river, enrolling about 300 first- through fifth-graders in five rooms. In 1914, it was enlarged — almost doubled in the size — and grades six and seven were added. The school district that year spent $6.06 per capita on black children and $30.45 on white students.

In 1927, the city school district purchased a 1-acre lot at the intersection of Elford Street and Old Spartanburg Road (an intersection that disappeared with the Church Street extension). In 1936, with WPA funds, a new Allen School was erected there and the old schoolhouse was abandoned. (It burned down in 1941.)

By the end of World War II, the new school, too, was bulging, with 513 students, two shifts, and classes averaging 45 students. A $62,400 addition provided six more classrooms and a much-needed cafeteria.

Allen operated until integration came to Greenville in 1970. Then it closed and was sold for $77,000. It has been vacant ever since. Yet the building, now for sale for $775,000, bears a name and a tradition that reaches 150 years into Greenville history.

Judith Bainbridge