Originally created 04/28/97

Historic Bettis Academy entering new era



TRENTON - Bettis Academy, which stood empty for decades, has entered a period of revitalization.

Once silent classrooms ring again with the sounds of children at their lessons and money is coming in to renovate and restore the historic black school. In addition, the campus itself has become an important stop along South Carolina's Heritage Corridor.

Despite the new activity on the campus, 45-year old Biddle Hall is in a state of disrepair and funds are needed to restore it. The building's repair and restoration are major goals in the campus's revitalization campaign and efforts are underway to bring that goal closer to realization.

In celebration of Earth Day, the academy participated in a March for Parks fund-raiser that netted more than $5,000 as about 80 walkers marched on the academy's track.

The majority of the contributions came in amounts under $100 from individuals and businesses.Plans for the continuing restoration of the Bettis Academy campus received another boost when the black school received a $1,500 grant from the Southern Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The grant, received jointly by the Edgefield County Assembly and the Bettis Academy Heritage Corridor, will help fund the hiring of a qualified consultant to assist in drawing up restoration plans for Biddle Hall.

Originally made of cinder blocks, Biddle Hall was built in 1942 by students at the academy. At that time, the academy was a combination grade school and junior college. Willa Lanham, chairwoman of the Bettis Academy Heritage Corridor Committee, said the building was once a state of the art teaching facility.

"Home economics was taught there," Mrs. Lanham said. "The students were taught courses in clothing and nutrition."

She said the consultant would study Biddle Hall, make recommendations for restoration and provide guidelines for the project to insure it conforms to U.S. Department of the Interior standards. The money from the matching grant will also be used to reprint the original biography of the Rev. Alexander Bettis, who founded Bettis Academy in 1881.

Mrs. Lanham said the book, A Brief Sketch of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Alexander Bettis, was originally paper-bound. Once the consultant is hired, she said, work on both the restoration and reprinting projects can begin.

The Bettis Academy Heritage Corridor is a site on the Edgefield County Heritage Corridor that reflects the influences of black culture there. The academy was founded during a time when few professions were open to former slaves or their children.

Mrs. Lanham said the Rev. Bettis could read but not write. He opened Bettis Academy to meet the literacy and occupational needs of the people, teaching crafts and trades in addition to the basics of reading and writing.

For years, Bettis Academy provided educational opportunity for young black men and women whose education was largely neglected by the state of South Carolina. The college eventually encompassed 14 buildings on the campus, though most of the structures are now demolished or in disrepair.

Bettis Academy closed in 1952 when South Carolina began to provide statewide education for blacks but reopened last year as a private elementary and middle school.

Mrs. Lanham said it is her committee's intention to restore Biddle Hall and the campus as a center for black history.

"The vision is to see Biddle Hall restored to its original state, as nearly as possible and open it as an African-American museum," Mrs. Lanham said.

When that day comes she will have an exhibit ready. Already cleaned and ready for display is a 1943 athletic jacket, complete with number and the name of the historic institution.