Deep in rural Sumter County, South Carolina, in what was once plantation country, a piece of history is slowly coming back to life.

Goodwill School, which served elementary and high school students, was founded in 1870, and although it closed in 1960, the building still stands strong after 140 years. If all continues to go as planned, this once vital center of a community will play that role once again.

The Goodwill Educational and Historical Society (GEHS) is in the midst of a restoration project that will reopen the old schoolhouse as a community center offering social and educational programs for area residents, especially families and children.

And while no one is sure when renovations will be completed, some effects of the effort are already visible — two local Presbyterian churches have strengthened a relationship that dates back to before the Civil War.

“(The school) does have a wonderful history behind it,” said Louise Bevan, a member of GEHS and of nearby Salem Black River Presbyterian Church.

Founded in 1759, Salem Black River was the original Presbyterian church in the area and is about a mile down the road from both the Goodwill School and the Goodwill Presbyterian Church, established in 1867. Salem Black River was made up of local landowners and their slaves and actually had a larger African-American membership than white before the Civil War.

“In 1867 when (former slaves) just asked to be removed from the roll, about a hundred of them left and went down the road and formed their own church and named it Goodwill because there were goodwill feelings on both parts,” Bevan said. “We still feel like the mother church somewhat to Goodwill.”

The education of the newly freed slaves was a concern, as segregation prevented African Americans from attending white schools. The Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen took on the task and sent missionaries from the north to the southern states to open schools. In 1870, the Goodwill School was built and opened next to the church. Once the school was established, the church took over its operation.

“The school was really the center of the community back then,” said Ruby Boyd of Goodwill Presbyterian Church. “There was nothing else going on. That’s where everybody came, either to the church or up to the school.”

The school served as both an elementary and high school until 1955, when the high school students were moved into the new public high school in response to integration laws. The elementary students also moved to the public schools, and Goodwill School closed in 1960. In the 90 years it operated, the school produced 31 students who went on to become ministers and many others who went on to college and became doctors, lawyers and business people.

The building stood mostly vacant for about 30 years, and in 1989, parts were severely damaged by Hurricane Hugo.

“There was a big question about whether you tear it down or put it into service,” Bevan said. “I think the group they got there had all gone to school there so they didn’t want to tear it down but if they had known how much work was involved in restoring it they might have thought differently.”

The building was still structurally sound and actually turned out to be in excellent condition given its age, years of neglect and hurricane damage. In the mid-1990s, the GEHS formed and made plans for the building’s restoration and the construction of a new wing in back. The society comprises members of both Presbyterian churches as well as community members.

The school was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

During the last 12 years, the building has seen many improvements: its foundation was repaired, a new roof was installed, handicapped accessible ramps were added, all of the doors and windows were redone and it was repainted.

With the outside work completed, the team is moving to the inside of the building, restoring a classroom and the entry hall.

“It takes a lot to get these old buildings back. You can build a new building cheaper, but it wouldn’t be the same,” Boyd said. “We’ve come too far to give up now.  This is something people really cherish.”

And all that work requires significant funding. So far, about $250,000 has gone into the renovations, said GEHS vice chairman Bill Remmes. Of that, about $95,000 is a federal grant; the rest has come from donations, mostly from families who went to the school, but also from the community. 

“It’s amazing this little community and the people connected to it have raised as much money as they have on their own, not from grants or anything else, just from contributions,” Remmes said.

But he also acknowledged that with all the progress that’s been made, there is still a long way to go.

“We’ll need probably about another $250,000 to $300,000 to complete the second floor and the side rooms,” he said. “Hopefully we can just keep going.  It will depend on how many contributions we get how long it will take to finish.” 

The finished area will go into use when completed, but the remaining interior rooms, including the entire second floor, will be closed off until finances allow work to be completed. 

Even though it has not yet gone back into service, the old schoolhouse has already had a unifying effect on the community. 

“We had good relationships but we didn’t have the personal connections we have had, a lot of it with restoring the schoolhouse,” Bevan said of her Salem Black River congregation and the Goodwill church.

Once the project is completed, the society envisions the school will have an impact in not only unifying the community but in supporting it and educating it once again.

“They have an up and coming woman as a minister [at Goodwill] and she has plans for the schoolhouse. We always have the problem of school children not getting the support they need and of young parents not having the support they need,” Bevan said. “This is one of the major things the minister says we need in this community. That’s what they really have in mind.”

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.