Booker T. Washington High School, Columbia, South Carolina, 1916-1974
I happened down Blossum Street recently, and my mind chased away over forty years of memories as though it was a mere moment in time.
Mary Ellen Amaker, Class of 1969
While I noticed the major changes in that area, my mind would only register the constant love I have experienced from the first time I saw Booker T. Washington High School.
The meticulous landscaping, the nice wrought iron fencing, even the new buildings that now line both sides of the street and beyond, didn’t really matter.
I refused to acknowledge the vibrancy cresting the air, as a new generation of students rushed about. I wished, as hard as I could, that I could glance over my shoulder and look directly into the past. I would then be able to see my beloved alma mater. The vision would beckon me to come, to learn, to grow.
Suddenly my mind began to whirl in time and at such a rapid pace, I began to think and feel as though I was transferred back in time, circa 1969.
I’m not ashamed to say it, I know it must be love! My heart swells with pride, and my head reminds me that this love I must share with the masses.
All but one of the buildings on the campus, as I knew it, are now gone. The bricks chosen to construct this edifice have become nothing more than the “salvaged bricks used in the restoration of the oldest part of the University of South Carolina’s main campus known as the Horseshoe”. GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
I think too of the times when the name Booker T. Washington High School was spoken, as though in reverence to a “living” icon. It happened then and it happens now.
When BTW opened for the very first time in 1916, the late Miss Benzenia Martin (a retired teacher), “was standing across the street”. This is what she said to me on many occasions. I can’t say whether she was facing north, south, east or west. I can say she knew that it was a great occurrence and extremely important for the education of our people. Even then we had teachers who knew that a solid education was a must for one to succeed and they also knew that BTW was the perfect school to obtain the same. I always felt immense joy just standing in the shadow of one who was there when a building was constructed, but a true icon emerged. It was like a Phoenix, rising up near the river banks of a little city, nestled in the rolling midlands of South Carolina.
As Columbia grew so did the remarkable reputation of our alma mater. This school cast a long “shadow” of providing a rock solid education for so many, it is impossible to fathom the numbers that walked those hallowed halls.
To quote one of the greatest educators (by profession), and teachers (by her gift from God), Mrs. Fannie Phelps Adams, said it best: “we educated the whole child.”
I can remember talking to her about our great love for BTW. I thought it was a positive phenomenon that she could say, aside from her collegiate years, that Booker T. Washington was the only school she had attended! Little Fannie Phelps began first grade at her neighborhood school. By God’s grace, it was Booker T. Washington. This was the second public school (Howard School was the first) constructed for children descended from slaves, in the Columbia area.
Many of you reading this article will remember something positive one of the teachers implanted in your spirit and it exists to this day. That “something” has travelled with you where ever life led you. For me, it enhanced who I became as a professional person. My personal mentor was the late Mr. William J. Gilliam. He taught me more than I could ever forget. It was his business acumen, coupled with my formal education, which made me the successful and professional person I became. GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
What was it about this school that served first as a compass: giving direction to children of working class fathers and mothers? This “compass” pointed us in an upwardly mobile direction-a direction which would effect thousands of students for many generations to come. Booker T. Washington also had the makings of a gigantic magnet: Polarized to pull former students (the best of the best) back, once college was completed. This original “magnet” school drew them back (by choice) to teach where they had once studied. They had learned long before college that education was the “gift” that would keep on giving. And you could never give it all away.
Those such as Mrs. F.P. Adams, Mrs. T. P. Hoffman, Mrs. O.K. Young, Rev. S. Goodwin, Rev. L. Cannon, Mr. L. Nazary, Mr. M. Brown, Mrs. V. Davis-McCloud, Ms E. Jackson, and countless others. They came in great numbers, anxious to impart the knowledge they had acquired. It is quite reasonable to surmise that their educational foundation was developed substantially at B.T.W.
It was as though we were all able to draw from a continual fountain of knowledge that flowed from an academic abyss.
No matter the distance, this school educated anyone and every one in the midlands area. It joined the minority neighborhoods and communities of Columbia, SC together. You may have heard of community’s with names such as Arsenal Hill, Wheeler Hill, White Town, Frog Town, Arthur Town, Edisto Court , Taylors, LiL Camden, Waverly, Dutch Fork, Piney Grove, Ridgewood, State Park and even the areas that extended into Gadsden, SC. I probably missed a community or two, but this gives an idea of how extensive our BTW “family” became.
Year in and year out students continued to migrate to this school because it was making such a difference in so many lives. Many walked several miles in the warm weather heat or the cold weather ice and snow. The late Mr. Frank Anderson, Jr. (’42) walked from the State Park Community every day. He was later awarded a certificate of distinction (by the Booker T. Washington High School Foundation) for having walked those many, many miles for his entire high school career, without one absence! The distance was at least a round trip of ten miles per day. Mr. Anderson was determined to absorb all that BTW offered. He was not willing to miss one day!
What ever it was that he and so many others, to include myself, garnished from BTW, I only wish I could give to our students today. Our present day school drop out numbers are far to great and our level of comprehension is far to low.
We must return to the unique blend that saw this school become the largest public high school for African Americans in South Carolina. It was among one of the few public schools accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. There was a standard of excellence expected of each student. This quality remained intact from 1916-1974.
This superior standard was apparent in all walks of life and fellow alumni distinguished themselves locally such as Mrs. Mamie Goodwin Floyd (’39). She was a renowned educator, poll worker, and civil rights activist. The Eau Claire branch of the United States Post Office was dedicated in her name in the year 2000. This was not an isolated incident. To my knowledge, J.C. Caroline (’52) was the first Washingtonian to distinguish himself in the National Football League (NFL). He began playing professional football with the Cleveland Browns and later played for the Chicago Bears in 1963 when the team was the NFL Champions. In 1980, that Golden Tornado was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Alfred Young (’67) played for the Pittsburg Steelers and Leon Benbow (’70) not only distinguished himself on the “hardwood” in our gym, he also played professional basketball for the Chicago Bulls. Because I have so readily spoken of those who excelled in education and sports is by no means the only forte we possessed. We had those who were just as talented in the Arts. Terry Friday (’69) was a renowned pianist and organist. He was the organist playing for William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States of America, Ecumenical Services at the historic Metropolitan AME Church, in Washington, DC.
Having been exposed to the wonderful staff of teachers at Booker T. Washington High School, it is no wonder that our varied talent was the rule and not the exception.
That Tornado brand of excellence also swept to the farthest corners of the globe as our fellow students felt compelled to defend a country unwilling to accept them as first class citizens.
The first World War (1914-1919) was probably the only war in which our students did not take an active role. After all, BTW was only three years in existence at the conclusion of this war. By the time WW II came about, Booker T. Washington was able to contribute not just infantry, but those who cared for the troops as they returned to the states as injured veterans.
2nd Lt. Hattie Mary Wade Rakes (’41), was a Registered Nurse who joined the Army to serve her country. Once commissioned as a 2nd Lt., Nurse Rakes became the quintessence of care for the returning wounded G.I.’s. I’m sure whatever military hospital she was assigned to, 2nd Lt. Rakes relied on her extensive knowledge base to perform at a level out pacing many others. This is probably why she was honored by the Veterans Administration.
2nd Lt. Rakes was the first African-American woman to have her portrait unveiled and hung at the Veteran’s Administration William Dorn Medical Center’s Wall of Fame. This is a perpetual honor for her descendents, as well as all of the Booker T. Washington High School family. The learned behavior Lt. Rakes acquired while in high school, was the same she passed on to her children. Three of her four children also share the commonality of BTW and service to our country: Thomas Rakes III (’69), distinguished himself as a Marine with two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was also called to war more than thirty years later, serving in Afghanistan. A second son, Wade Rakes (’70) is also a U.S. Army veteran and last but not least, Major Janne Rakes Middleton, R.N.(’71) distinguished herself as well, serving in the Desert Storm War.
Service for one’s country is not limited to time, only to duty and honor. George Wallingford(’67) and Eugene Hingleton (’67), gave America their ultimate honor and sacrifice: Both were killed in action in Vietnam, 1968. I’m sure there were other Washingtonian’s who willingly gave their lives to defend those values we learned at home and at Booker T. Washington. GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
In this 21st century, our children have far more resources and advantages, yet less of a knowledge base. To say it nicely, they have more to work with, but they walk away with less knowledge. Sometimes I think it is all about choice and consequences. I don’t know about other schools, but we were taught that principle at BTW.
One choice we had to concentrate on was whether we wished to study and follow the academic line of study which was preparation for college. Our teachers prepared many for that college experience.
The alternative to college prep was a magnificent vocational and trades program. Students were instructed in painting, carpentry, brick masonry, auto mechanics, radio, and cosmetology. The latter programs prepared the students for early entry into the work force. This high school gave thousands their careers and taught them how to develop their own businesses.
There is probably not a career where you could not find a BTW graduate occupying it. How many count themselves as artisans because of the hard work and tireless efforts of Mrs. Martin (Cosmetology); Mr. Bossard and Mr. Cooper (Brick masonry); Mr. Harrison (Painting); Mr. Means (Carpentry); Mr. Roberts (Radio); or Mr. Williams (Auto mechanics)?
Many shops, company’s and businesses owe their very existence to the afore –mentioned. These instructors, one and all, -academic or trade-, chose not to “give us a fish”. Instead, they chose to make a life long difference. They taught us “how to fish”. They chose to give us the ability to be self sufficient, standing with the ability to provide! Where is that hope for today? Can we find our way back?
We need to soul search and connect with what we had then and what we have now.
How much are we willing to give to make a difference? We know what we had, we know what we need and we know what we want for our youth. We must willingly find common ground and commit to those coming after us. Just as it was done at Booker T. Washington, we can and must do it again. Step by step. GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
It is imperative that we remember what our dear alma mater gave each of us. We have been given the ability to make a difference in this life time. We were also left with a legacy of hope. This legacy is a perpetual legacy. It will be forever.
At least twice a year, Washingtonian’s formally come together to celebrate this legacy and to fellowship with others from across these United States. In June, the Booker T. Washington Foundation sponsors an annual banquet and picnic. Many classes in reunion also chose to get together this same weekend.
This is an annual fund raiser for the BTW Foundation’s College Scholarship Fund.
In December, The BTW Alumni Black and Gold Gala host a ball for the second annual coming together of fellow Washingtonian’s. The purpose for this second organization is a kin to the first: Keeping the memory of BTW “alive”. The Gala is on Face Book and “ its’ purpose is for Tornado Alumni and friends to reconnect , share information and perpetuate the legacy of our high school. Part of the receipts are donated to the BTW Foundation’s College Scholarship Fund.
These two events remind me of “big day” down home! This is when every one comes back to see friends and take a leisure stroll down “memory lane.” We then share our joys and sorrows because we are in the midst of those who love us more.
Both of these affairs gives us another opportunity to pass on our legacy of hope and serves as a reminder of what we were given during those illustrious days of old. It was a perpetual gift carried in the corner of our mind and blazoned across our heart: A gift we should pass on as often as we can. A gift of knowledge willingly passed on to the next generation. It was also a gift of compassion and caring.
All of this reminds me of how much it matters that our school was closed in 1974. It matters that USC’s president bemoaned the fact that Booker T. Washington High School was viewed as “this island…” (T. Jones - personal communication, November 20, 1962). We know for certain that BTW was better than an island. It was an Oasis! It gave us refuge from the world that surrounded our school. The University of South Carolina continued to encroach upon that small parcel of land (four acres, to be exact) bound by Bull, Marion, Wheat and Blossum Streets.
That high school was just like the “anchor” store in our present day malls. It was like those tiny drops of super glue holding tons of weight in place. Just as the anchor needs the support of a strong chain of stores and that glue (no matter how “super”) has to be strategically placed, the common area, called Wheeler Hill, thrived with the hustle and bustle of a urban African American community.
On the “Hill” and not far from the “Hill” was the customary choice of Baptist or AME churchs. Within the community was Antioch Baptist and St. James A.M.E.
There was a welcomed plethora of homeowners. The names that I recall are the Nathans, the Lewis’, the Phelps, the Argos, the Browns, the Cullers, the Gibsons, the Drafts, the Nobles, the James, the Fords, the Powells, the Kennedy’s, the Jenkins, the Oglesby’s, the Cannons and the Maxberry’s. The area supported a vibrant business section, as well. There were taxi companys, dry cleaners, funeral homes, restaurants and corner stores.
Within walking distance of BTW was the downtown area and an even larger segment of African Americans residing and working. We had more church’s (St. Luke Baptist, now on Farrow Rd. and Union Baptist now located on Germany Street ), both of which were on a tract of land that now houses USC’s Coliseum and parking lots.
These were just a few of the necessities that defined our school as an oasis. We were clearly not “isolated”, by any means. The brief description given was just a microcosm of our total community in the downtown Columbia area.
I like to remember the vibrancy of that community from the rivers to Wheeler Hill. Booker T. Washington High School was the essence of that entire area. The businesses moved and BTW continued to educate. The church’s (St. Luke and Union Baptist) were sold, congregations moved and BTW continued to educate. Some homeowners sold out for the new phase called suburbia. BTW continued to educate the masses.
It was only when my other alma mater’s (USC ’76) student body nearly tripled in growth within twenty years (1950’s 4,307; 1960’s 5,661 to 9,150  and by 1970 14,484) that Richland School District One , in my opinion, Dr. Guy L. Varn and others conspired to set in motion the ultimate destruction of Booker T. Washington High School.
The historical significance of that high school was enough to warrant the school remaining intact. That was clearly ignored in the plan set forth by USC to obtain those four acres.
What could have possibly happened had the school remained? Continued school and community pride?
Less of a drop out rate? The development of even more future leaders? Many of the values I learned at home was strictly reinforced at BTW such as humility, tolerance, respect, honesty, love of tradition, family, and responsibility are a part of my very being. This is above and beyond the excellent education I obtained.
Why didn’t Richland School District One honor their verbal commitment to “name the next high school constructed Booker T. Washington? I can remember attending a school board meeting when the topic was the naming of the (soon to be ) newly constructed high school.
Initially, I was offended that the present day board members were not considering giving honor to what their predecessors had pledged. The offense I felt rapidly left as a former Washingtonian stood at the lectern and spoke on behalf of the school that had been located on Pinehurst Rd. Of course, she was an educator at this school. To see her equate a school that was a middle school when BTW was more than half a century old; to see her equate the name of a former Columbia area businessman (who happened to be a former school board member during segregation) with the universally recognized educator, Booker Taliaferro Washington, broke my heart.
“The graduates won’t have a school to return to…” That is all I can recall her saying. Since I had already spoken, my silence screamed, where do you, me and thousands of other BTW graduates go? Is my soul the only one that suffered an immeasurable loss by the demise of that grand ole catalyst which stood for so much good? What about us? Don’t we deserve tradition as well as the next citizen?
I know that there will always be a question and concern will always exist about the callous manner versus the dignified manner in which two high schools in Columbia were put away. After all, Richland School District One was the steward for Booker T. Washington, too. With that in mind, where are the artifacts, and memorabilla?
Columbia High School was moved to a St. Andrews location. Booker T. Washington was just torn down. GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
While we can harness the future day by day, we know we cannot alter the past. We can manipulate the future by setting forth well laid plans.
We cannot depend on a “word”, we must have the promises and proposals in writing. Our society as a whole must know and recognize what is worth saving. We must know and recognize that cultural differences are an enhancement to our society, as a whole, and not a detriment. We should embrace our differences and build up, not tear down.
As long as we remember what B.T.W. gave to each of us, that great legacy will live on thru us. We can no longer wait for change to come. We must affect change.
It has been more than thirty five years since the final graduating class marched into history.
It is certainly time enough to take a stand for what our high school means and has meant to us. Have you shared your legacy recently or do you just keep those memories compartmentalized for bragging rights every now and then? The better scholars, the better band, the better teams, the better teachers….
What matters most is that we will carry our greatness with us. Wherever we go, with the greatest of intent, we must accept that we are a living legacy. Yet we will eventually place our sword of life into the sands of time.
We must also provide a means of perpetuating this icon that only God could have foreseen its’ greatness. Since the choice is yours and mine, what is your pleasure?
I have decided I will take up my part, call it my portion, and strive to make a great difference in the name of Booker T. Washington High School. Our school may be gone, but it will never be forgotten.
SING A SONG OF GLORY, A SONG OF WORK AND FUN! SING A SONG OF ALMA MATER, BOOKER WASHINGTON !
WE THY LOYAL CHILDREN, FAITHFUL TO THEE COME, REVERTLY WE BOW TO BOOKER WASHINGTON!
PRAISE SONGS HAVE RUNG, FOR WASHINGTON, FOR THEE OUR SACRED SHRINE.
THY SONS AND DAUGHTERS SHALL FOREVER SHINE…
You can email Mary Ellen Amaker at
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