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Historic school building in Pickens County slated for renovation

PICKENS, S.C. -- A more than 100-year-old one-room school building that served as the only education outlet for Black children in the Liberia Community of northern Pickens County will soon be renovated as part of a larger plan to establish the once thriving community as an historic stop just off Scenic Highway 11.

The Soapstone Preservation Endowment (the Endowment), a public charity created for the sole purpose of protecting and promoting the history and story of the Liberia Community and Soapstone Baptist Church, has reached a historic agreement with Greenville-based Harper General Contractors to “adopt” the former Soapstone School as its latest community service project, said Carlton Owen, the Endowment’s Chairman.

“When we launched the Endowment in 2022 with the audacious goal of amassing a $500,000 perpetual endowment by December 2025, we envisioned the school as our first project,” Owen said.  “With the generous help of Harper General Contractors and their cadre of partners, we know that this will be a success.”

This is the first step by the nonprofit to formally establish the entire site as a historic stop that will be included on a Black History Trail in the Upstate, he said.  The story of Soapstone has spread throughout the region because of the efforts of Mable Owens Clarke, the sixth-generation steward and matriarch of the church. In 1999, her mother, Lula Mae, made her promise never to let the historically Black church close. As part of her mission, Clarke began doing monthly fish fries for the community for the next 22 years.

The Soapstone School traces its history to children taking classes in the 1870s on the rock that gives the church and schools its name. The school then moved inside the church before the school building was erected in the 1920s for students in first through sixth grades.A one-room building with unpainted walls and double seats for students who carried pails filled with water from a nearby stream every day at 11 a.m. so their teacher could make a “Type B ” lunch of pinto beans, turnip greens, black beans and cornbread, it served the community until it was closed as part of consolidation efforts in 1953.

Harper and the Endowment will hold their work day on Saturday, May 4, said Doug Harper, the company’s chairman. The company is well known for its community efforts over the years. It earned the Community Foundation of Greenville’s 2022 Philanthropic Spirit Award, which recognizes an organization that serves the community through exceptional partnerships with nonprofits and by providing vital programming.

“We have known about the history of the Liberia Community and Soapstone Church for many years and have been inspired by community matriarch Mable Owens Clarke’s efforts to sustain the site via monthly fish fries that she hosted for more than two decades,” he said. “When we learned of the Endowment’s plans to rehab the school we jumped at the chance to be a part of helping protect and promote this important legacy.”  

Once the building is stabilized and rehabilitated, period furnishings will be sought so that area residents, students, and tourists can experience a bit of what the education system was like for Black children until mandatory school consolidation.

The Endowment has already achieved 40% of its financial goal and has established “The Partnership Challenge” seeking at least one hundred businesses, churches, or individuals/families who provide a one-time $3,000 or greater tax-deductible gift or $1,000 per year over three years in support of the Endowment’s mission.

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