ORANGEBURG OUT OF THE PAST

Wallace C. Bethea, 1894-1982: This past Thursday, December 15, 2016, Wallace Carlisle Bethea was inducted posthumously into the Orangeburg County Business Hall of Fame. The imprint that he established on Orangeburg’s economy through the years was legendary. Mr. Bethea’s foresight with economic development has made a lasting impression for the Orangeburg area through the years. Wallace Carlisle Bethea without a doubt has been one of the most influential persons involving economic development in Orangeburg through the years. Born near Darlington in 1894 Mr. Bethea graduated from Wofford College and Duke University in 1914. His first job afterwards was with Spartanburg Grain and Mill Company. During World War I he served in the U.S. Army in both France and Germany. In 1919 Mr. Bethea began his legendary business career here in Orangeburg as the manager of his father in law’s concern, the J.W. Smoak Hardware Co., a position he held until his retirement at age 87 in 1981. In 1925 Mr. Bethea began a tenure of forty five years serving on the Board of Trustees of South Carolina State University, an historic black college. He was also Secretary of the Board from 1925 to 1966. Unprecedented growth occurred at S.C. State during his service. In 1955 the newest and largest dormitory being constructed was named Bethea Hall in his honor. His wise business acumen helped S.C. State achieve financial stability during his tenure. Wallace Bethea helped organize and establish First National Bank in Orangeburg in 1933 on the heels of the depression. He served as its president and chairman guiding its success for over forty years. Mr. Bethea also served on the local Orangeburg school board for twelve years as well as being its chairman. As early as 1936 he had stressed that African-American school facilities were inadequate and their teachers’ salaries were too low. His efforts secured the establishment of the first African-American public high school in Orangeburg, known as Wilkinson High, in 1937, as well as sought equitable salaries for African-American teachers. For the first half of the twentieth century agriculture drove the economy here in Orangeburg. In the 1950s wise business leaders like Mr. Bethea realized that the agricultural business was beginning to dwindle and saw the need to actively seek manufacturing industries to sustain our economy. Thus in 1955 the Orangeburg County Planning and Development Commission was formed, and of course Wallace Bethea was its chairman. It is said that when one prospective industry decided to locate in another city, Mr. Bethea inquired as to the reason. He was told that the company really preferred to come to Orangeburg, but that it would cost them $50,000 more in site preparation to do so. Mr. Bethea then wrote a personal check to the company for the $50,000 to cover that expense, and the industry came to Orangeburg. Mr. Bethea’s civic activities include being a past president of the Chamber of Commerce, a founder and second president of the Rotary Club of Orangeburg, Chairman of the Board of Stewards at St. Paul’s Methodist Church, charter member of the Country Club of Orangeburg in 1922, a founder of the S.C. Milk Producers Association, and president of the Coastal Milk Producers Association. In 1959 he was selected as the Citizen of the Year in Orangeburg. Fraternally he was a member of the Elks, a Mason, the American Legion and the VFW. In 1917 he married Merle Smoak, the daughter of prominent Orangeburg businessman, J.W. Smoak. They had three daughters: Lillian B. Rembert, Lynda B. Borden, and Merle B. Cox. Economically Wallace Bethea made a significant imprint on Orangeburg through the years. The impact of his effort is truly immeasurable. He died at age 88 in 1982.

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