Originally created 05/02/04

Museum will restore Bettis Academy to life



TRENTON, S.C. - When people ask Patria Brayboy, 95, about Bettis Academy, memories from her childhood start to stir.

Sitting in her home, only blocks away from the school she attended for more than 14 years and taught at for eight more, Mrs. Brayboy said she remembers the boarding school for black pupils as her home.

"We did everything there," Mrs. Brayboy said. "I remember walking down to the school each day, and I remember having trouble with arithmetic. It wasn't easy back then. But the school was so beautiful."

The Rev. Alexander H. Bettis, a former slave educated by his master, founded Bettis Academy and Junior College in 1881 as a one-room schoolhouse for children of former slaves. However, it quickly grew into a large campus that housed more than 1,000 boys and girls each year. Outside of churches, the school was the only social institution for blacks living between Aiken and Edgefield counties.

Spanning elementary grades through junior college, the private school's last graduating class was 1952. But memories of the decades when it was one of the few educational outlets for blacks are still strong, and the Bettis Academy Heritage Corridor Committee is working to restore one of the buildings on the 350-acre campus and transform it into a museum.

State Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Clearwater, and state Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, helped secure a $200,000 state capital improvement bond for restoration work in 2000, and the corridor committee raised an additional $150,000 in private donations. Renovations on Biddle Hall finished last week.

"We want this project to move quickly and get the museum up and running," said Mr. Clyburn. "Now that the building is ready, we're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."

Only three brittle shells of the academy's 14 buildings still dot the campus, located near the southern border of Aiken and Edgefield counties, but the committee, led by Willa Lanham, of Aiken, is trying to preserve what history was left behind.

Biddle Hall was built in 1942 with help of the school's pupils - none of the many windows are exactly the same. The building housed a home economics laboratory with classrooms and kitchens.

It also provided living space for the female pupils. Bettis Academy's curriculum focused on the practical, featuring courses in agriculture, home economics and teaching.

"Now we want to turn it into a museum with artifacts related to Bettis Academy," said Mrs. Lanham, whose sister and husband attended the school. "A wooden ironing board, a wash pot, a cot from a boy's dormitory and a desk from the principal's office - those are the kind of things we are looking for."

Mrs. Lanham said the school's rich history and tight community will help the museum succeed.

Herbert Bettis, 79, is Mrs. Brayboy's brother and a great-grandnephew of the school's founder. The 1945 graduate said the school meant everything to him.

"Bettis Academy was like a city to me, because everything and everyone was there," he said.

Mrs. Brayboy also said the school's restoration is special to her.

She said she can't wait to see the museum once it is filled with snapshots and memories of others who attended the school.

"This was the biggest thing going for us at that time," she said. "It's not hard to remember that was a great place for me."

ABOUT BETTIS ACADEMY

Opened: 1881, as a one-room schoolhouse for children of former slaves

Founded by: Rev. Alexander H. Bettis, who also founded more than 40 churches

Campus: 350 acres on the border of Aiken and Edgefield counties

Pupils: Estimated the school once held 1,000 pupils in elementary, middle, high school and junior college

Closed: 1952 because of a lack of moneyRenovation completion date: April 23, 2004

Source: Bettis Academy Heritage Corridor Committee

Reach Peter G. Gilchrist at (803) 648-1395.