May 28, 2018

The Reawakening of Black Academia in Chester County, South Carolina

Birthed in 1866, closed in 1939, and revived in 2017, Brainerd Institute is determined to carry out a rich legacy of academic achievement and black excellence.

Brainerd Institute was the first and only school in Chester, South Carolina, for freed slaves and their children—when it opened, it was one of the largest and oldest institutions for black students in the United States. Brainerd was known for its well-versed curriculum offering vocational, industrial, mechanical, classical, college preparatory, and teacher training, as well as advanced courses like French, Latin, chemistry, and music.

During an interview with The New York Times, Vivian Ayers Allen (an alum of Brainerd’s final graduating class of 1939 and mother of award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad) described the curriculum at Brainerd. “We were taxed academically and kept busy with extracurricular activities around the clock,” she said. “We recited Thanatopsis and all of the catechism in the seventh grade, and we learned Milton. When I had children and looked for a school like Brainerd, I couldn't find one. There has never been another one like it.”

Side view of Kumler Hall at Brainerd Institute.

photo by: Brainerd Heritage Trust

Side view of historic Kumler Hall at Brainerd Institute, Chester County, South Carolina.

The school grew rapidly. What started as an elementary school soon expanded through the 12th grade. When high school admission began to decline, Brainerd Institute was renamed Brainerd Junior College. It was one of the largest feeder schools for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) including Benedict College, Johnson C. Smith University, and Howard University, in the United States.

"Brainerd remains legendary for the success and impact of its students, their off-spring, camaraderie, and love of learning. They are the source of the epithet NERD,” Ayers Allen explained.

As public education expanded in South Carolina, opportunities for black student admission increased. This institutional shift convinced the Presbyterian Church that Brainerd Institute was no longer a necessity to the Chester community. In 1939, a decline in admissions and limited funds prompted Brainerd Institute to close. Rashad recalled her mother describing the last day of the institution. “You would have thought someone died,” she said. “The entire community cried that day.”

Ayers Allen has a strong, familial connection with Brainerd Institute—not only was she an alumnus of the school, but both of her parents attended and graduated from Brainerd, as well. Ayers Allen grew up across the street from the institution. She would often bring her daughters to her childhood neighborhood, where they would spend their evenings dancing on the historic campus grounds. It is no wonder the family holds Brainerd Institute so near to their hearts.

When Ayers Allen caught wind that her Alma Mater was up for sale and could be redeveloped into apartment complexes, she provoked her daughter’s inner activism. “Somebody ought to do something,” Rashad remembers her mother saying. “And somebody did.”

Just like that, Rashad purchased what remained of Brainerd Institute—Kumler Hall, the old boy’s dormitory school. ''When you think of the things you could give a person, most of those would not mean much to her,'' Rashad said. ''But this meant everything to her.''

Rashad and her sister, dancer Debbie Allen, have since hosted fundraising events to raise money for the restoration of Kumler Hall. Currently, the building is still under reconstruction, while Rashad, Allen, and Ayers Allen are using the campus’s green spaces for the Open Fields program.

Ayers Allen first launched the program in Houston, collaborating with a group of art instructors who set up art stations across the city’s open, underutilized fields. The success of the initial Open Fields Program prompted Ayers Allen to expand her initiative to Brainerd. In 2017, the first summer literacy workshop was held on the school’s fields. Preschoolers between ages 4 and 6 gathered on the campus to explore the program’s interactive curriculum. The program will continue in summer 2018.

Mirroring the educational experience of Brainerd Institute, the Open Fields program provides teachers with creative freedom and is described as “organized chaos.” The program provides lessons, workshops, and guest speakers that make students feel more like they are at camp than at school. “There’s an affirmation that says not only do you belong, but you will succeed,” says Rashad.

In the 19th century, educators in Chester County recognized that schooling and education opportunities for previously enslaved people were essential to their community’s progress. These leaders took action and established a school that was responsible for providing thousands of African American students with a fundamental education.

Ayers Allen and her daughters are committed to keeping up the Chester County tradition of providing education to students in need. These three women will continue to restore Kumler Hall so that someday soon, Open Fields will be a year-long program that preserves and shares Brainerd Institute’s academic, artistic, and cultural contributions with the community.

Phylicia Rashad and two other African American women working in preservation were recently interviewed in a story for Essence magazine. View the full story here.

By: Crystal Emelife

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