Imagine a place where you could feel safe, a haven from the stresses of the outside world, a nurturing environment where you learn to thrive even when the odds are not in your favor. This is how retired educator Barbara Whitney described the campus of the Mary McLeod Bethune School, an all-black grammar and high school built in Inman during the separate-but-equal era of South Carolina's history. For sixteen years, the Bethune School did more than educate students: it created strong, resilient citizens who remained connected through a sense of place and moved forward together toward a brighter future. This August, 300 alumni held an all-school reunion, the first since 1990, and even though the building no longer bears the name of the famous civil rights leader and educator for whom it was christened, the memories still remain.
The only school for blacks in Inman before 1953 was the Ben Bomar School on Blackstock Road. The Bethune School emerged from Governor James Byrnes' attempts to support segregation by building more schools for blacks; his intention to separate only resulted in bringing the black community closer together. From its opening until its closing in 1969, the school had one principal, L.L. Shannon, and the devoted teachers became a second family for the students. Ruth Tinsley, class of 1965, remembered her teachers warmly. She said they were "very interested in their students and taught us manners." Tinsley was a teenage school bus driver; bus routes included Inman, Landrum, Campobello, New Prospect, and Gramling. When Federal mandates required black students to be absorbed into the all-white Chapman High School, students opted to remain one final year through a "Freedom of Choice" program of integration. Residents lost their battle to keep the building as a community center, and the Bethune School was sold.
This year's reunion began with a get acquainted night at Chapman High School on Friday August 22, a banquet at the Marriott on the 23rd and ended with a service at Zion Hill Baptist Church on Sunday August 24th. On Saturday, a group photo taken in front of the old school site, now Ed Perry's Auto Parts, was followed by a parade and a ceremony at City Hall. A proclamation from Mayor Cornelius Huff honoring the school was presented to co-organizer of the reunion, Melvin Fowler. Barbara Whitney inspired everyone with a speech in which she said: "The physical building, that we so proudly called 'Mary McLeod Bethune' may have been taken from us, but they can never erase the memories of all the good that was done in 'that place.' "
Resiliency and a strong sense of place are qualities that are shared by many residents, but these traits are only part of the reason that Inman is still standing while other communities fade into ghost towns; the diversity of the community also plays a key role. By reflecting on the past and drawing upon its strengths, all of the citizens of Inman can work together to create a more positive future.