|Benjamin E. Mays Family Center opens in former Pacolet Middle School|
Bob Montgomery Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Pictures of former students dating back decades still line the dark hallways, and trophies celebrating past achievements surround the library walls at the former Pacolet Middle School that closed two years ago.
And now, after three years of planning and fundraising, Pacolet’s new Benjamin E. Mays Family Center has opened.
Named in honor of the late civil rights educator and mentor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Mays family center already has a computer lab for job searching and training, thanks to a partnership with SC Works of Spartanburg.
Next to come are dental health, mental health and addiction recovery services, and home visitation for pregnant women and new mothers.
“I would like to see the center be where people come to improve their circumstances to forge a better future for themselves, better educated with knowledge and opportunity to learn what lies ahead,” said Jerry Rice, the center’s executive director.
Rice, 58, began his duties last month and anticipates having two or three assistants in the coming months to roll out programs that residents see as lacking in the Pacolet area.
Rice was previously a social worker for a hospital system in Pennsylvania and decided it was time for a career change. He relocated to the area with his wife of 36 years, allowing them to be closer to two of their three children (and grandchildren) and to enjoy rural life in the Upstate.
My wife and I wanted to move to warmer weather and we have grandkids here,” Rice said. “I felt it was time to do something different, yet in service where I could help a small community. (The job posting) met all those requirements, and the community and executive board have a strong vision.”
Between $120,000 to $150,000 raised to transform Pacolet school
The Benjamin E. Mays Consolidated School was built in 1953 and served African American elementary students in Pacolet, grades 1-6, and all African-American students in the district in grades 7-12. It was the first public school in the nation named in his honor.
With integration in 1970, the school became Pacolet Middle School, serving grades 4-8 and grades 3-6 were added in 1976. And in 1983, the school became Pacolet Junior High School, serving grades 7-9. In 1993, it became a middle school for grades 6-8.
In August 2021, the school closed when students from Pacolet and Cowpens middle schools consolidated as the new Clifdale Middle School opened in the renovated former Clifdale Elementary.
Before the school closed, the Benjamin E. Mays Alumni Association began fundraising efforts three years ago with private donations and funding from Vulcan Materials, $20,000; Spartanburg County Foundation, $20,000; and Mary Black Foundation, $7,500.
Between $120,000 and $150,000 was raised for the school repurposing, and the center opened last month with weekday hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Rice said.
The center will serve a largely rural area of southeastern Spartanburg County and portions of nearby Cherokee and Union counties, Rice said.
The 50,000-square-foot building still has its gymnasium, cafeteria, and kitchen. The building sits on more than 20 acres of land that includes athletic fields.
Pacolet’s low infant birth rate nearly three times the county average
Molly Talbot, president and CEO of the Mary Black Foundation, said Pacolet is a desert in terms of early child support
According to the Early Development Instrument, over a quarter of children in Pacolet entering school each year are vulnerable or at-risk in school, she said.
Census data shows that the low infant birth rate in Pacolet is nearly three times the Spartanburg County average, she said.
According to board members of the Benjamin E. Mays Family Center, the center’s goal is to partner with other organizations to determine what services will be most beneficial for the people of Pacolet.
Benjamin E. Mays was a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr.
South Carolina native Benjamin Elijah Mays was born in 1894 in Greenwood County to parents born in slavery and freed at the end of the Civil War. He died in 1984 at the age of 89.
A writer, minister, educator, humanitarian, philosopher and early opponent to segregation, he spoke often against segregation and for education.
A former dean at Howard University and president of Morehouse College for 27 years, Mays mentored the young King.at Morehouse College.
Mays gave the benediction at the end of the 1963 March on Washington and the eulogy at King’s funeral in 1968. In 1984, he was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame.
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