A forerunner of the public school system, Horace Mann called education the “great equalizer of the conditions of men.” If it is true, then the reverse could also be true, particularly in South Carolina. While as early as 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony made "proper" education mandatory and similar statutes were adopted in other colonies in the 1640s and 1650s, it wasn’t until 1811 that South Carolina opened a few free "common schools" to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to whites.
The establishment of an educational system among white citizenry in Lee County of South Carolina officially began in 1851 with a community school housed in Bethlehem Methodist Church. Records show that Robert Fraser and Mary Capers were the teachers. Preceding accounts list schools like Cypress (1835); The Lynches River Academy in Stokes Bridge Community (1849); and others which were referred to as “common old field schools”. They were credited with having educated some of Lee County’s first elected officials. According to a newspaper issued in the late 1800s, educators of Bishopville’s Grade School included E.Y. Perry (principal of Collegiate Department); Mamie Watson, Bessie McLean, Ella Freer (assistants); Ada Holoman (music); and J.T. Prit, (penmanship).
It is told that Shepard Nash rented the Bishopville High School building and grounds to use as the school in the fall of 1888. Parents paid tuition for their children to attend.
Other schools in the white community included Alcot, Ashland, Ashwood, Bishopville Academy, Browntown, Cedar Creek, Cedar Grove, Central, Cypress, Durant, Egypt, Elliott, Fairview, Hebron, Hickory Hill, Ionia, Ivanhoe, Liberty Hill, Lucknow, Lynchburg, Mt. Clio, Mt. Pleasant, Riverside, Rock Hill, Schrock’s Mill, Spring Hill, St. Charles, St. Matthew, Turkey Creek, Una and Una-Alcot.
African American community schools began to emerge early in the 20th Century in St. John A.M.E. Church in Bishopville. The first principal was Rev. Augustus Sumter. Other community schools for African Americans included Curry, Ebenezer, Jerusalem, Little Zion, Mechanicsville, Mt. Zion, Sandy Bluff, St. James, St. John I and II, St. Mark, St. Matthew, St. Paul I, and II. Some were small one and two room buildings which had no connection to the church. They included Cooper’s Mill/Rosenwald, Greenwood, Manning, Oak Grove, Pate View, Ready Branch, Rock Hill, Roosevelt, Shaw Mission, Turkey Creek and Wysock.
Mattie Fisher was heralded the master educator for African Americans during this time. She was lead teacher and was responsible for the recruiting and placement of teachers.
Rebecca Dennis donated a parcel of land for the construction of a public school for African Americans in 1916 in the Bishopville area but it wasn’t until 1936 that the new brick building was raised on the land. The wooden building was designed at that time to serve as the elementary school, however it was destroyed by fire. The new building served as (elementary and high school) Dennis School in honor of Rebecca Dennis.
The principals of Dennis were very important people in the African American community. Their influence upon education and the lives of Lee County people was enormous. The first principal of Dennis was Rev. P.L. Stewart. George C. Abraham, I.C. Brown, W.W. Gallashaw and W.M. Jefferson trailed Stewart. During Abraham’s leadership (1932-1941), a second brick structure was built down the street from Dennis School and became Dennis Elementary School for many years.
I.C. Brown’s (1941-1942) one-year term at Dennis included a reduction in classroom size, the establishment of a parent teacher organization, the creation of a Drama Club, and the development of a scholarship program with Allen University.
Under W.W. Gallashaw (1942-1964), there were many accomplishments as well. The school formed its first school band and established athletic programs (football, basketball; the 1957 girls basketball team won the class 2AA State Championship). The following courses were also offered: Introduction to Education Television, French, chorus, and service organizations (YWCA, YMCA, Student Council, Boy Scouts, 4-H, Homemakers, and NEA Club).
The year 1952 marked the opening of Lower Lee in St. Charles and West Lee in Spring Hill, leading to the close of most of the community schools serving African Americans. The years 1952-53 were very historic for African Americans. For the first time, black children rode on state-owned school buses and ate school lunches.
T.J. Slater (Lower Lee) and W.E. Brooks (West Lee), came to Lee County in 1952 and made their mark as principals and educators, until their retirement in the 1980s. Record indicates that enrollment in the African American community schools totaled approximately 4,250 students, including 351 at the High School level in 1950.
In 1957, Mount Pleasant High School opened its doors and joined Dennis High School (student population 2,000) in serving African American students in Lee County. Mount Pleasant’s first principal was Isaac Joe, who led the school in its first 25 years of existence. Joe credited County Superintendent Edwin Culpepper with its establishment for his support of Mount Pleasant.
About the same time (1950), there were approximately 1,595 white students enrolled in Lee County public schools. The 13 serving the white students were Ashwood, Bishopville, Cedar Creek, Central, Elliott, Hebron, Liberty Hill, Lucknow, Lynchburg, Mt. Pleasant, Riverside, Schrock’s Mill and St. Matthew. The already established Central High School (1922) consolidated with Ashwood to form Ashwood-Central. A few of these would last beyond integration of schools.
There were 10 public schools in the county prior to integration: Ashwood-Central High and Elementary; Bishopville Primary; Bishopville Grammar; Bishopville High; Dennis Elementary and High; Ebenezer Elementary; Fleming Elementary; Lower Lee Elementary; Mount Pleasant High; and West Lee Elementary.
By 1970, the public school system became fully integrated. After which time, Bishopville Grammar become Bishopville Middle and Dennis High School and Bishopville High School consolidated to form Bishopville Junior High. Bishopville High and Bishopville Junior High exchanged buildings for many years. During 2000, the Lee County Board of Education renamed the school Dennis Intermediate School, now Dennis Primary. The opening of the new Lee Central High in August 2000, marked the closing of two Lee County Schools; Bishopville High School and Mount Pleasant High School.
Leading public education for Lee County were the following district superintendents: Johnson McCutchen (1942-1954); Edwin Culpepper (1950s and 1968-1974); Boyd Stokes, (1960s); William E. Carson (1974-1978); James B. Kirkland (1978-1979); Frank Bouknight (1979-1982); John E. Wall (1982-1995); John Stevenson (Interim, 1995-1996); Dr. Willie Townes, (1996-2006); Dr. Lloyd Hunter (2006-2008); Dr. Cheryl Stover (interim, 2008); Dr. Cleo Richardson (2008-2013); and Dr. Wanda Andrews (2013-present).
Townes was the first African American superintendent (excluding appointed interim Stevenson) to serve in LCSD where the student population is more than 99 percent African American. Andrews is the first female (excluding appointed interim Stover) and the first African American female to serve in this capacity in the district.