Daughter of Keith School founder visits site's museum for the first time
Close to a century ago, eager young students began gathering in a one-room wooden building on Clements Ferry Road to get an education. Margaret Keith Powell was one of them.
Built in the early 1900s, the Keith School was founded by Powell’s father, Edward Keith, with help from others in this once rural community. Today, a replica of the school, known as the Keith School Museum, sits just behind the remnants of the foundation of the original structure, which was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
Powell, now 94, returned to the site last month from her home in Philadelphia to celebrate and reminisce with other members of the Keith family about her father’s important and lasting contributions. It was her first time visiting the museum.
“We asked her ‘what are you thinking about?’” said Powell’s daughter, Connie Lee, who accompanied her on the trip. “And she said ‘I’m thinking about my father.’”
Wearing a shimmering pink jacket and skirt, a sparkling necklace and rose-colored lipstick, the smiling guest of honor took the scene in, watching reverently from her wheelchair as dozens of family members chatted at tables.
“I am very excited!” exclaimed Powell, about the opportunity to return to the community.
“It’s gonna really bring back some memories,” added Lee, as she sat by her mother’s side. “The reason her father donated the land – his children were walking so far to school every day.”
Powell was the only girl to be born to Edward and Rebecca Keith. Her other eight siblings, now all deceased, were boys. They were all very protective of her, noted Lee, and called her “Sister.”
As local resident Vernelle Dickerson readied a feast of shrimp and grits, homemade biscuits, and fresh fruit for all to enjoy, the room buzzed with conversations and stories about days long ago.
“This school – and Mr. Keith – represent education in the Wando/Cainhoy community,” said longtime resident Fred Lincoln, a member of the nearby Jack Primus community. “Before this school, my father and them would go to their aunt’s house just to learn their ABCs. Basically, just to learn to read and write their names and so forth. You have to think at the time this school was being built, you had people living who were former slaves…They were in this community.”
And they were craftsmen, Lincoln continued, who understood the importance of education.
“They had the foresight to see that in the future we would need education,” he added. “So they got together and said let’s build this school. And Mr. Keith was at the forefront of that.”
Keith donated the land for the school and helped construct it – with the community’s help.
“They got together and they would take eggs, fish and stuff to Charleston and sell it so that they would have the money to buy nails and everything for this school,” added Lincoln. “No one got paid for building this building.”
“My grandfather and the people of this community didn’t have much education,” said Calvin Keith, whose father was Isaiah Keith, one of Edward’s sons. “…(But) they could see what was going to happen. The community did what it had to do to make sure kids in this area had access to education.”
Calvin Keith described his grandfather as a tall, soft-spoken man who was a carpenter by trade and a farmer. He remembers his grandparents providing room and board for the teachers who would serve at the school house.
“They came over by boat,” recalled Calvin. “And they didn’t come here every day like they do now…The teachers stayed.”
Lincoln remembered the school house having three rooms (including two that were added after the original construction) and a small eating area.
“We had rice and beans,” he said. “Lunch was 5 cents. Very few kids could afford to eat lunch. They had to bring their little cornbread and eat on the side…That was the humble beginning.”
The Keith School taught local children from 1926 to 1956, when the Berkeley County School District opened the new Cainhoy School (now known as Cainhoy Elementary).
Rose Lewis, Connie Lee’s cousin, also took a moment to speak to those gathered.
“I greet you all with a sense of peace,” she said. “And just profound appreciation for the vision that our ancestors had to recognize the vital importance of education.”
David Hutchinson, who attended the event with his family, was touched and inspired by the stories shared.
“It feels good, hearing what has already been said, actual accounts of what has taken place,” said Hutchinson. “But for me, being a 35-year-old young man with a family, a wife and two children, I just feel like now I want to take some time. I don’t want to overwhelm myself, but I do want to take some time to connect with regards to how all this comes together…I can’t know where I’m going if I don’t know where I’ve been.”
“It’s fantastic,” added Leroy Keith, a grandson of Edward Keith. “We are all proud and happy this day could come about…He would be so happy. I know that he’d be smiling. Realizing that evidently God told him and inspired him to do what he did.”
Rep. Joe Jefferson was also in attendance during the program honoring Margaret Powell and her father. Jefferson had taken part in the Keith School Museum’s dedication in 2006 and has maintained close ties with the community.
“We all have the same needs, the same wants in life,” he said. “We want for our children to have the same opportunities, regardless of ethnicity, complexion, color – we all want the same thing.”
“I am just so thrilled that we have Sister here today with us,” continued Jefferson, directing his attention to Margaret. “And we are so proud to be here. We thank you for your father and your mother, because they were able to see that vision that made so many things possible.”
A beaming Margaret was brought to the front of the room at the end of the remarks to receive a special basket of goodies prepared for her by Dickerson.
“This is just a great surprise,” she said. “And I want to thank everyone. It’s been wonderful.”
Ninety-three years after the Keith School opened, life lessons are still happening for those that gather in this special place.
“Young people,” noted Dickerson, to the children in the room, “let’s always think about what our ancestors went through to give us the choices and the freedom that we have now.”