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Column: KC and the state superintendent

Posted: July 9, 2018 2:41 p.m.
Updated: July 10, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Recently, the General Assembly placed on the ballot in November the question of the state superintendent of education ceasing to be elected by the people but becoming an appointed cabinet position under the governor. Some historical background on that office and its relationship to Kershaw County over time might be of value to county voters in deciding how to vote on this question.

In 1868, through the efforts of federal authorities and some individuals called scalawags and carpetbaggers then controlling the state, a constitutional convention was convened in Charleston. One of the delegates to the convention was Justus K. Jillson of Kershaw County.

Jillson, a native of Massachusetts attended school in Warick and taught school there (ca. 1858-61). Sometime before the fall of 1866, he moved to Camden and taught school in the Freedmen’s Bureau School named Jackson located on Broad Street across from the Robert Mills Court House. The next year this school was moved to a location on DeKalb Street. Jillson was the principal of the school.

The year 1868 was a busy one for Jillson. That year, he married fellow teacher Ellen A. Gates of Massachusetts. He was elected to the S.C. Senate from Kershaw County and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Later, in 1868 after the constitution had been adopted, he was elected state superintendent of education and served in that position until 1876. There was no provision in the new constitution that prevented Jillson from being a senator and a superintendent of education at the same time.

This constitution, the first one to provide for public schools in South Carolina, called for the election of a state superintendent; selection of school commissioners for each county, establishment of free schools; creation of a “Normal School” to train teachers; establishment of a school for the Blind, Dumb, and Deaf; setting up a state reform school; plus a few other provisions. Compulsory attendance and non-segregated schools were not implemented due to strong opposition.
The Constitution of 1868 represented a distinct departure from the antebellum traditions of South Carolina. Before many of its provisions could be implemented, much time passed and the state replaced the Constitution of 1868 with that of 1895. However, this constitution retained most of the educational provisions of 1868. Schools would remain segregated until the U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1954.

Remarkably, many of Justus K. Jillson’s records while state superintendent of education survive in the files of the State Archives, especially those for 1868-70. They indicate Jillson worked hard with meagre resources to launch the public school system of South Carolina.

These records contain such specific information as the name and location of 18 “white” and 12 “colored” county schools, the names of teachers and all the students, length of school sessions, type of school building construction, owner(s) of the building, etc.

These 30 schools for which records exist do not represent all areas of the county. Obviously some records are missing or schools were yet to be established in some sections of the county. For example, only a few of these records are from the area west of the Wateree River, while the section along the Sumter/Kershaw County line to Lynches River seems fairly complete.

In 2004, I published a 32 page pamphlet entitled, Public Schools, 1868-70, Education during Reconstruction in Kershaw County, S.C. This pamphlet contains much more detail on this subject than can be included in one newspaper column. In this pamphlet I concluded:

“The lack of a history of or background in public education in South Carolina resulted in a poorly trained and limited pool of local talent from which teachers could be drawn. Consequently, in 1868, most were poorly trained. Economic conditions in postbellum South Carolina limited the supply of adequate resources to teach such as textbooks and other classroom and school supplies. With limited and often poorly trained teachers, with drafty and cold buildings in winter and hot ones in spring and summer, classes as large as 40 students, sessions averaging about 3½ months, inadequate finances and an inexperienced government to operate the schools, the South Carolina public school system was launched in 1868. Although we have problems today, we must conclude we have come a long way compared to the year of 1868.”

Jillson resigned as superintendent and returned to Massachusetts in 1876. In 1879, he was employed as the principal of the Day Street Grammar School in Fitsburg, Mass. By 1881, he was living in Springfield, Mass., and teaching at a local college. That year he committed suicide at his home reportedly due to suffering from acute rheumatism.

Following Jillson, the office of state superintendent of education has been filled by 16 others: Hugh S. Thompson, 1877-82; Asbury Coward, 1882-86; James H. Rice, 1882-90; W.D. Mayfield, 1890-98; John J. McMahan, 1898-02; O.B. Martin, 1902-06; J.E. Swearingen, 1906-22; James H. Hope, 1922-46; Jesse Anderson, 1946-1966; Cyril Busbee, 1966-78; Charlie Williams, 1978-90; Barbara Nielson, 1990-98; Inez Tennebaum, 1998-06; James H. Rex, 2006-2010; Mitchell Zais, 2010-14; Molly M. Spearman, 2014 to the present.

Jillson was the only one of these 17 superintendents to be from Kershaw County and he was an import from Massachusetts.

A large percentage of South Carolinians today have had varying experiences with the public education system of S.C. such as attending grades K-12, attending public supported colleges and all who are over 18, having the right to vote in state superintendent of education elections if they chose to do so. Some of us have also worked in the public school system.

Including grades 1-11, college, teaching, school administrator, and a supervisor in the South Carolina Department of Education under two state superintendents for 17 years, I have had 50 years involvement with public education in S.C. Since 1950 I have voted in 32 elections for state superintendent of education.

When I go to vote this November about appointing a state superintendent of education, these are some of the questions I will have answered for myself. Would my service in public education have been more productive if I had been working for the governor and would problems in education been solved better under him/her? Would this have saved the state money? Would South Carolina students have had a higher quality education? Do I want to give up my right to vote for the state superintendent to the governor?

You decide. I already have!

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