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Historical ‘Soapstone School’ set to be renovated through new South Carolina project

<i>WYFF via CNN Newsource</i><br/>The historical 'Soapstone School' is set to be renovated through a new South Carolina project.
Lawrence, Nakia
WYFF via CNN Newsource
The historical 'Soapstone School' is set to be renovated through a new South Carolina project.

By Rashad Williams

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    PICKENS, South Carolina (WYFF) — The historical 7-acre property in the Liberia community of Pickens County is home to Soapstone Baptist Church and Soapstone School.

The one-room, Soapstone School was built in the 1920s and was once a place of education for Black kids in the area. In fact, it was the only place they were allowed to go to get an education.

At 81 years old, Mable Owens Clarke is the oldest living member of Soapstone Baptist Church. Her parents were farmers who owned the property on Liberia Road, and she also attended Soapstone School.

“I had the opportunity to attend this school in 1948,” Owens Clarke said. “I remained in this school until 1953 when the government shut the one-room school down. I started coming here initially when I was three but legally when I was six. By the time I did turn 6, I already had listened to what the teacher was teaching the first graders, so it was a breeze for me.”

Through the Soapstone Preservation Endowment, and the generosity of Harper General Contractors in Greenville, the Soapstone School is set for a renovation project. The school and the grounds will serve as an area for tourists and education to teach and show people about the rich, black history of the area. The project will begin on May 4.

“The slaves built this schoolhouse so we could get an education,” Owens Clarke said. “It will be a historical site coming off Highway 11 for people to come here, and I’m going to be here to see them walk on the grounds.”

“The building is not only still standing, it’s actually in pretty decent shape for a building that’s a little over 100 years old now,” Soapstone Preservation Endowment Board Chairman Carlton Owen said. “Everything from 1900 to 1950, one-room school and one teacher teaching children of all ages. Until school consolidation, which was mandatory when the 1950s came along, this was the only educational opportunity for black children in the Liberia community. The entire site of about 7 acres is what we will protect and promote as a tourist and education site just three miles off of Highway 11.”

A release from the Soapstone Preservation Endowment Board states:

A more than 100-year-old one-room school building that served as the only education outlet for Black children in the Liberia Community of northern Pickens County will soon be renovated as part of a larger plan to establish the once thriving community as an historic stop just off Scenic Highway 11.

The Soapstone Preservation Endowment (the Endowment), a public charity created for the sole purpose of protecting and promoting the history and story of the Liberia Community and Soapstone Baptist Church, has reached a historic agreement with Greenville-based Harper General Contractors to “adopt” the former Soapstone School as its latest community service project, said Carlton Owen, the Endowment’s Chairman.

“When we launched the Endowment in 2022 with the audacious goal of amassing a $500,000 perpetual endowment by December 2025, we envisioned the school as our first project,” Owen said. “With the generous help of Harper General Contractors and their cadre of partners, we know that this will be a success.”

This is the first step by the nonprofit to formally establish the entire site as a historic stop that will be included on a Black History Trail in the Upstate, he said. The story of Soapstone has spread throughout the region because of the efforts of Mable Owens Clarke, the sixth-generation steward and matriarch of the church. In 1999, her mother, Lula Mae, made her promise never to let the historically Black church close. As part of her mission, Clarke began holding monthly fish fries for the community for the next 22 years.

The Soapstone School traces its history to children taking classes in the 1870s on the rock that gives the church and school their name. The school then moved inside the church before the school building was erected in the 1920s for students in first through sixth grades.

A one-room building with unpainted walls and double seats for students who carried pails filled with water from a nearby stream every day at 11 a.m. so their teacher could make a “Type B” lunch of pinto beans, turnip greens, black beans and cornbread, it served the community until it was closed as part of consolidation efforts in 1953.

Harper and the Endowment will hold their workday on Saturday, May 4, said Doug Harper, the company’s chairman. The company is well known for its community efforts over the years. It earned the Community Foundation of Greenville’s 2022 Philanthropic Spirit Award, which recognizes an organization that serves the community through exceptional partnerships with nonprofits and by providing vital programming.

“We have known about the history of the Liberia Community and Soapstone Church for many years and have been inspired by community matriarch Mable Owens Clarke’s efforts to sustain the site via monthly fish fries that she hosted for more than two decades,” he said. “When we learned of the Endowment’s plans to rehab the school, we jumped at the chance to be a part of helping protect and promote this important legacy.”

Once the building is stabilized and rehabilitated, period furnishings will be sought so that area residents, students, and tourists can experience a bit of what the education system was like for Black children until mandatory school consolidation.

The Endowment has already achieved 40% of its financial goal and has established “The Partnership Challenge” seeking at least one hundred businesses, churches, or individuals/families who provide a one-time $3,000 or greater tax-deductible gift or $1,000 per year over three years in support of the Endowment’s mission.

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