GREENVILLE, S.C. --- In 1853, Erskine College gave 25 one-year scholarships to John N. Davis in exchange for a $100 donation, according to court papers filed by two of Davis' heirs.
Now those two descendants want to make the college honor the scholarships, which could be worth as much as $50,000.
Marguerite S. Kane and Davis S. Hanna have sued Erskine College in federal court, asking the school to honor the scholarships. But college officials said the certificates were only good for 25 years.
The certificates were passed down for four generations to Ms. Kane and Ms. Hanna, who are sisters living in Texas, their attorney Justin S. Kahn said.
The two have not decided whether they will attend Erskine if the scholarships are honored. They might sell them or give them away to needy students, Mr. Kahn said.
Erskine officials said an endowment plan adopted by the school's board of trustees in 1853 said the scholarships were valid for only 25 years. At the time, the college was 14 years old.
If the college is forced to honor all of Davis' certificates, it would cost more than $440,000. Officials also said a judgment against the school could cause more old scholarship certificates to surface.
The attorney for the heirs said Erskine should have been rewarded from Davis' $100 investment, which, if invested conservatively, would have doubled about every decade and be worth more than $3.2 million today.
"Erskine comes out ahead," Mr. Kahn wrote in court papers. "Erskine realizes the handsome profit it spoke of so long ago."
While court records indicate Davis was given 25 scholarships, Mr. Kahn said he has not been able to determine how many remain because some could already have been used.