Students of Orangeburg's former Wilkinson High School converged upon 822 Goff Ave. in an impressive sea of maroon and gray, the colors of their beloved alma mater which they honored with the placement of historical markers on Thursday.
Built in 1938, 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.
With the advent of integration, Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School was built in 1971, combining Wilkinson High School with what was then the all-white Orangeburg High School.
Orangeburg resident Evia Thomas, a 1958 graduate of the school, was among the alumni who gathered at the site of the Goff Avenue school, which now houses South Carolina State University's Military Science Department.
"It is this site where it all began in 1938," said Thomas, who welcomed alumni and other government, education and business leaders to the special occasion.
She touted the fact that the building was still standing and in good use 81 years later.
A second marker was later unveiled at the Belleville Road site, which is now Robert E. Howard Middle School. The celebration event was culminated with an alumni gathering at The Premiere in Orangeburg.
The Rev. John Ritter, a 1957 graduate of the school, gave the invocation.
"It's so good to be back in the crowd one more time," Ritter said.
Orangeburg Mayor Michael Butler designated Nov. 21 as Wilkinson High School Day in the city of Orangeburg, which a sign signifying the designation standing on corner of Russell and Lovell streets.
"Wilkinson High School was the cathedral for learning for African-Americans in Orangeburg," Butler said, noting that the markers served as an "enduring reminder" of how the community benefited from the school's excellence which both teachers and students demonstrated.
Clara Robinson, the school's oldest living teacher, was also in attendance. The 96-year-old lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with her son, Carey, but was accompanied by her other son, George, of Cincinnati, Ohio.
"It's so good to see all of you ... I'm glad being here," Robinson said.
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"She lives down in Tallahassee with my brother, but she's in constant contact with everybody in Orangeburg," George said, noting that being at the unveiling ceremony was special for both him and his mother, especially considering what the school meant to the community.
"You take it for granted until you're through it, until you leave and you're away, then it hits you how important it was to the community, the African-American community, in this part of the country," he said.
Wilkinson graduate Ulysses Jarvis, 90, was also at the ceremony, sharing stories of how the administration and surrounding community worked together to keep students in line.
Irene W. McCollum, who attended Wilkinson High from 1954 to 1958 and met her husband there, said the school gave students valuable learning and growth experiences.
"They had teachers who cared about them as a person as well as a student. ... They found happiness in this building as well as knowledge," McCollum said.
Linda Green Jenkins, a 1970 graduate of the school, said, "We're still here. We're grateful.... Attending Wilkinson was one of the greatest joys of my life."
She credited students' parents and teachers with equipping so many of Wilkinson's students for success.
Green said she and other graduates are now giving back within their community, including donating school supplies within the public school system and supporting Project Life: Positeen, an after-school tutorial program which Orangeburg Mayor Pro Tem Liz Zimmerman-Keitt, a 1956 graduate of the school, founded and is director of.
Zimmerman-Keitt was among the alumni who gathered at the Goff Avenue site on Thursday.
"It's great knowing that this many students are still alive and doing quite well. We care so much about our school," she said.
Wilkinson graduate Dr. Barbara W. Jenkins, a charter member of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission, said, "This is truly a happy occasion."
Jenkins said she was happy that the alumni worked together to help erect a historical marker to commemorate the legacy of Wilkinson High School.
"This is our history and no one can tell our history but us," she said, noting that having a school with an auditorium, library and a full academic program supported by 11 faculty members "was a feat for African-Americans in South Carolina."
Jimmy Abraham is a member of the class of 1953, the last class to graduate from the Goff Avenue school site.
Abraham, who will turn 85 in January, said he was proud to be able to witness the unveiling of the marker.
"Back in our time, they had all the trades here in the industrial building, including brick masonry. I took brick masonry from eighth grade to the 12th. At that time, we graduated from Dunton Memorial and moved over to Wilkinson, and completed five years of high school there. Then we moved on to State College or Claflin. It's a historical event," he said.
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