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Isaac Wilborn Jr. was one of the first African American principals on Hilton Head Island. At age 24, he became principal of Hilton Head Elementary School in 1954. Wilborn is pictured with his wife, Ethel Williams-Wilborn. They reside in Elloree.

An Elloree native, considered a pioneer in education on Hilton Head Island, was one of the first African American principals in that community.

Isaac W. Wilborn Jr., the seventh child of educators Isaac W. Wilborn Sr. and Marie Waymar of Elloree, was born on Feb. 17, 1930.

“I never lived any place else while I was growing up except in Elloree,” Wilborn, 86, said in a recent interview.

He attended first through 11th grades at the Orangeburg County Training School and after graduating, began his freshman year at South Carolina State College at age 16.

“Education in my family here in Elloree and with my relatives — it was like a religion,” Wilborn said. “You didn’t tell your parents that you weren’t going to school. It was just a way of life.”

He transferred to Allen University in Columbia, where he obtained his bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1950.

Wilborn married Romona Johnson that same year and returned home to Elloree with his new bride. That summer, his uncle took him to Beaufort for a job interview. A few days later, he received a call from the school superintendent in Bluffton.

“He called me down for an interview. He said, “Does your wife want to work?” Then, he hired both of us,” Wilborn said.

The couple taught at Bluffton Graded School.

“I taught some of the higher grades, and she taught in the primary,” Wilborn said.

After a year, he was drafted into the military, serving almost two years.

When Wilborn returned from the military, the superintendent rehired him to teach in Bluffton.

“The following year, in 1954, the superintendent called me back to the office and said, ‘We’re building a new school on Hilton Head Island. Would you like to go there and be the principal at that school?’” he said.

That summer, the couple returned to Elloree and began their graduate studies at South Carolina State University.

In August, Hilton Head Elementary opened as a seven-teacher school, with Wilborn serving as the seventh teacher and its first principal at age 24. He served as principal there for 28 years.

Wilborn went on to establish The Children’s Center on Hilton Head Island.

“A lot of the parents, women in particular, got jobs at nearby hotels, but they had young children and there were no babysitters,” he said. “So some of my first grade students were staying out of school in order to take care of their younger sisters and brothers.”

“I thought to myself, ‘I can’t have this.’ I don’t need children out of school,” Wilborn said. “The young children would go there (The Children’s Center), and we would keep them there until after school,” he noted.

Initially, The Children’s Center was designed for 80 children. A new facility, built in 2007, is now handling approximately 350 children, with kids as young as six months accepted.

In addition to his leadership roles in education, Wilborn was a co-owner of a radio station on Hilton Head in 1965, was co-founder of Hilton Head National Bank and board member of the Hilton Head Hospital. Also a locksmith, he owned Wilborn’s Locks and Alarm on Hilton Head.

Wilborn served as president of the Beaufort-Jasper Mental Health Association and president of the Beaufort County Teachers Association. He served as director of Palmetto Electric Cooperative for 32 years.

“With (my wife and me) being outsiders, they thought we could bring something to the community,” Wilborn said.

During his education career, Wilborn taught reading, writing, math and geography.

He said he brought his military experience and background from Elloree to his students.

“I’d been overseas so I could talk about that kind of experience,” Wilborn said.

When he returned to Hilton Head after attending a summer program at Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, he shared an idea with the superintendent.

“When I came back, I told my superintendent that I need to let primary children come to school early in the year so they would get used to a new building and restrooms,” he said.

As a result, The school board allowed Wilborn to open Hilton Head Elementary a month before school began.

That extra time would get them accustomed to discipline, too, he said.

“I had a teacher, a bus driver and a bus to go around and pick up the children. This was being paid for by the district, not by the state. That was a year before Head Start started,” Wilborn said. “At that time, we called it ‘Bridging the Gap between Home and School.’”

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The only privately funded kindergarten program was also established at Hilton Head Elementary during his tenure as principal.

Wilborn said his role as principal opened up many doors for him to become active and involved in the community.

“Practically everything the community wanted, they made me a part of it,” he said. “So I was sort of a big fish in a little pond.”

In 2000, the board named the street that circles Hilton Head Elementary School Wilborn Road.

Wilborn established the I.W. Wilborn Jr. Scholarship Fund after he retired and became a pastor in 1991. He played a major role in rebuilding Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton while he was pastor there.

“When I was pastor, I wanted to try to help the children who had financial difficulties going to college,” he said.

This sparked the idea of a golf tournament. Wilborn didn’t play golf but knew people who did so he requested they attend a meeting to discuss his idea.

“Golf was the game on Hilton Head so I thought if I could get that started, that would really be a good way to raise some money,” he said.

During the inaugural tournament, more than 100 players volunteered to play.

“My former students, wherever they were working — some from Florida, some in Alabama, some in Georgia — all came to play in the tournament,” Wilborn said. “They would bring teams and play.”

The tournament, which is in its 23rd year, has raised more than $500,000 to assist students. Any student in Beaufort County who is accepted at a college or post-secondary school is eligible to receive assistance.

The 23rd Annual Native Island Golf Classic will be held at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27, at Golden Bear Golf Club. (Those interested in playing in the tournament are asked to call Willie J. Young at 843-384-0779.)

Wilborn has been recognized for his many accomplishments with numerous awards.

“I’m not sure that I really deserve all of the accolades that they’ve given me. I was honored,” he said.

“I’m not a dreamer, but I’m a visionary,” Wilborn said.

The 86-year-old returned to live in his hometown of Elloree in 2007.

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Contact the writer: or 803-533-5516.


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