A committee of former students of Orangeburg's former Wilkinson High School is preparing to commemorate the memory and legacy of their beloved alma mater with the placement of historical markers at the sites where the school once stood.
Orangeburg resident Evia Thomas, a 1958 graduate of the school, said her class began thinking about projects that they could do for their alma mater in early 2018 when the idea of markers came up.
"In early 2018, we said, 'Let's try to get the historical markers initiated.' So that's what our class did. Ms. Barbara Williams Jenkins, who was the reference librarian at South Carolina State and now resides in Manning, South Carolina, was the first person that I heard talk about historical markers. That's been years ago, and nothing had been done since," Thomas said.
That was about to change.
The class had their first meeting with other Wilkinson High alumni in December of 2018 to discuss the erection of historical markers at the two sites where the school flourished in Orangeburg.
"We discovered in our research since December that most of the segregated schools, the black high schools in South Carolina that were in competition with when I was in school, already had historical markers. So we're kind of at the tail end of this," Thomas said.
A pledge sheet was sent out for anyone wanted to donate towards the effort which was designed to pay tribute to the school's history and impact.
"We have gotten enormous response. Our alma mater was the school that excelled in academics, athletics and music. She produced federal judges, lawyers, military leaders, educators, college presidents, medical professionals, professional athletes, government officials, professional photographers, artists, ministers, retail owners, renowned musicians and more," she said.
Wilkinson High School was the first high school that was built in Orangeburg for the education of black students. The first facility was built on Goff Avenue before a second school was built on Belleville Road.
"It is still standing at the military science building at South Carolina State University on Goff Avenue. The second facility was erected in 1953 on the Belleville Road that faces Mingo Street and is now Robert E. Howard Middle School," Thomas said.
She added, "The middle school is actually named for the second principal of Wilkinson High. Dr. J.C. Parler was the first principal when the school was built."
With the advent of integration, Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School was built in 1971, combining Wilkinson High with what was then the all-white Orangeburg High School.
Thomas said text for the markers was finalized in July and sent to Marietta, Ohio-based Sewah Studios, who will make the markers.
Thomas said there are plans for a grand unveiling ceremony that is tentatively being set for November. A group of alumni, including members of the historical marker committee, gathered at Robert E. Howard Middle School on August 8 to plan for it.
"We had a meeting at our old school in the media center with people who have donated so that we can establish committees to start working on a celebration for the dedication," she said.
Thomas said the entire effort is being made to keep history alive. It is a task she said she could not do alone.
"Betty Walker, who lives in Charleston, is really our editor. Ms. Jenkins is the historian. Ulysses Jarvis is the oldest Wilkinsonian that we're in touch with, and he's on the initial committee. My sister, Liz Zimmerman Keitt, was one of the first donors. Cecil Williams has been asked to be our other historian because he's the photographer that has done all of the historical photographs in Orangeburg and South Carolina," said Thomas, who also referenced Dr. Wilbur Shuler, an S.C. State University grad and board member, who serves as treasurer of the historical marker committee.
"We have a good cross section of committee members, one from the '40s class, two or three from the '50s and Wilbur, who is from the class of '60," she said.
Thomas said staff from the Orangeburg Historical Society and the state Department of Archives and History have also assisted the group in their efforts.
Dr. Edwin Breeden, coordinator of the historical marker program at the state Department of Archives and History, said the program is a way to preserve history.
"Our office is involved in other activities toward that end, but I think one way to look at the marker program is that it really is a great way to try to attune people to the importance of places in their local community and be able to tell stories in faces and places that people a lot of times pass by because they might not actually understand the importance of it," Breeden said.
He said, "All of the markers that are erected through our program are proposed and sponsored by people at the local level. The Wilkinson group, like every other group, submitted an application to us.
"We reviewed it and conducted research on the high school's history, partly using some of the resources that the alumni provided to us. Then we drafted text for the markers and revised them in conversation with the sponsors."
Thomas said the support of all Wilkinson High Wolverines has helped make the effort possible, with everyone taking the time and resources needed to complete the project.
"We are excited. We are very loyal Wilkinsonians. Wilkinson has produced federal judges and renowned musicians and more. I have a list of persons who actually held those positions. So we've done a lot of research.
"My class of 1958 is very active. We meet monthly at IHOP, pay dues and go on trips together. We just keep the legacy going. We're like brothers and sisters," she said.
She said the fundraising effort continues. Anyone who wants to contribute can contact Thomas by phone at 803-534-1354 or email at email@example.com for more information.
"We want to have a grand affair for the celebration, and we want to keep a treasury to maintain the markers," Thomas said.