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Working to restore a Presbyterian school in South Carolina that helped shape Black leaders in the PC(USA)

Among them are the forebears of the PC(USA)’s Stated Clerk and the leader of the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Goodwill Parochial School, founded more than 150 years ago in Sumter County, South Carolina, went on to turn out at least 32 PC(USA) ministers. A board is fundraising to complete restoration of the school, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo by Amy Henderson)

LOUISVILLE — A dedicated board of directors is redoubling efforts to draw attention to and restore the Goodwill Parochial School building, now known as the Goodwill Cultural Center, in east Sumter County, South Carolina.

The school, founded in 1867 and constructed around 1890, was closed when combined with another school in the early 1960s and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. For decades, Goodwill Parochial School, with support from antecedents of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., a predecessor of the PC(USA), educated thousands of African American children whose parents and grandparents had not long before been freed from enslavement.

“We have forgotten so much that the Black church has done over the years,” said the Rev. Dr. Johnnie Monroe, who chairs the board of directors of the Goodwill Educational and Historical Society Inc. “The Presbyterian Church used to have elementary and junior high schools throughout the country, particularly in the South … It was at the Goodwill School where we learned Black history, dignity and self-respect.”

The board is actively fundraising to compete the restoration work envisioned for the school, which still stands despite the challenges of time and hurricanes, including Hugo in 1989. Monroe notes that the grandfather of the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was pastor of the nearby Goodwill Presbyterian Church in Mayesville and the principal of the school.

The Rev. Warren Lesane, Jr., executive and stated clerk of the Synod of the Mid-Atlantic, is a product of Goodwill Presbyterian Church, one of at least 32 Presbyterian ministers who can claim that heritage. He also attended Goodwill Parochial School for a time.

“It gave Black Presbyterians their identity amidst social and economic struggles,” Lesane said. “That school and church gave me a sense of identity and dignity and a willingness to take the hard stands that are sometimes contrary to the larger community. It’s a unique place.”

“The school and the community, the school and the church — they were intrinsically tied together,” Lesane said. “There was not the separation of the three institutions the way we see in our larger society.”

A recent board meeting held via Zoom proved to be informative. The Rev. Richard Dozier, a retired pastor who served the Goodwill church for about five years following his retirement, said his board service stems from “trying to give new life to the old schoolhouse.”

“I owned the home next door,” said DeeDee Bevan. “I am here to support this organization how best I can.”

Deloris Pringle, a native of Sumter, is providing grant services to the organization. “This project is very dear to me,” Pringle said. “I look forward to them getting the kinds of funds they need to restore fully the old Goodwill School.”

Rudy Wheeler grew up in the community and attended Goodwill Parochial School “as did older family members. I became a teacher and coach and a school administrator. My goal is to work with the community and the cultural society in any way I can so the old schoolhouse can become a landmark and provide service to the people of east Sumter County.”

During that same meeting, board members also discussed the work before them, including the installation of bathrooms and wireless internet. Pringle updated board members on local, state and federal grant opportunities.

As Monroe notes, the Goodwill School “is perhaps one of the only Black Presbyterian schools of that era still standing, and we feel it is a testament to the work of the Presbyterian Church among, to and with African Americans. In a time when our government is seeking to erase Black history, I believe the Goodwill project will stand as a monument to the rich history and culture in that era.”

Restoration efforts are being revitalized for both educational and historical purposes, Monroe said.

“I had my family reunion there a couple of years ago,” said Monroe, who now lives in Pennsylvania. “I was raised there. I did elementary and middle school at the schoolhouse, and I am a son of the Goodwill church,” one of the 32 who, like Lesane, came out of the church.

According to the Goodwill Cultural Center Business and Strategic Plan, the school was sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. for more than 60 years, and by Goodwill Presbyterian Church after that. In 1867, two years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 100 Black members of the Salem-Black River (Brick) Presbyterian Church requested leave from the church they had attended as enslaved people to establish their own church. The congregation walked two miles down Brick Church Road to where Hamilton Gaillard Witherspoon, the owner of the Coldstream Plantation, had given them a two-acre tract of land. On this land the congregation constructed Goodwill Presbyterian Church, the first Black Presbyterian church in Sumter County.

By 1872, the Committee on Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (later the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen) reported that Goodwill, with more than 350 students, was one of the three most active parochial schools supported by the church in South Carolina. The pastor of the Goodwill Church was also principal of the school; Nelson’s grandfather, the Rev. Dr. Warren J. Nelson, served from 1924-1960.

In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. recommended that the church discontinue its financial support of the day schools it had long supported in the South. Along with 35 other Black parochial schools, Goodwill Day School was “discontinued” on June 1, 1933. The school continued to operate as an elementary and high school until 1955, when high school students were moved into a new public high school following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

During the 1960-61 school year, Goodwill closed its doors, having operated for more than 90 years. The school was consolidated with Eastern School, a Black public school. In addition to its impressive roll of clergy, Goodwill School also produced many doctors, lawyers and business leaders. Learn more history here and here. Those interested in making a donation can do so at this address.

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