Dennis School in Bishopville was built in 1936 and stood in stark contrast to its neighboring school built the same year, Bishopville High School. Constructed during the heart of segregation, Dennis was intended to serve as an elementary school for the town’s African American children, while Bishopville High School would house white high school students. Bishopville High School was built for $71,000, while Dennis School was built for $17,000. During this time county funding was widely disparate between black students and white students: white children were allotted $48.38 per student, while black children received only $5.68.
The original Dennis High School, located three blocks from the new Dennis School, was a two-story wooden building that burned to the ground before the start of the 1936-1937 school year. Displaced, the high school students were forced to share the newly-built Dennis School with the area’s elementary students for the next 12 years. Dennis School then became known as Dennis High School.
The school was significant in educating African American students in the area, as it was the only black high school in Lee County, which covers 411 square miles. As a result, many students walked long distances to Dennis High School or simply ceased their schooling after the eighth grade. During this time it was not unusual for black students of high school age to end their educations. In 1941, 19 South Carolina counties lacked high schools for black students, and only eight buses across the entire state provided black students with transportation. Due to segregation, attending high school was problematic at best and illegal at worst for a great number of South Carolina children.
In 1948 a new high school for black students was built to relieve the overcrowding that plagued Dennis High School. The Dennis High School building then became Dennis Primary School. At this time, talks of desegregation were brewing, and segregationists were well aware of these discussions. When James Byrnes became governor in 1951, he enacted the “Education Revolution” to pour funds into African American schools, hoping to dispel any opinions that black schools were inferior so that students would remain segregated as part of the Separate But Equal laws that overshadowed our nation.
In 1954 a new Dennis High School and Dennis Elementary School were built near Dennis Primary School in order to stave off school integration. Dennis Primary School was slated to receive necessary renovations, as were other black schools across the state, in legislators’ attempt to prove that South Carolina schools were equal in accommodations. A week after the construction bid was announced for Dennis Primary School, Brown Versus The Board of Education was decided in favor of desegregating all schools, and construction was suspended. However, when Governor Byrnes learned that the transition was not imminent, he allowed the schools to be renovated. Dennis Primary School received several updates, and a single classroom was added. (At this time indoor plumbing was installed; during the first 16 years, Dennis students were forced to use an outhouse.)
Lee County did not integrate its schools until 1970. At that time Dennis High School, which had served black students of varying grades for over 30 years, ceased operation. Today the school building serves a the Dennis Community Center.
For further information read Rebekah Debrasko’s 2008 study titled Equalization Schools in South Carolina, 1951-1959, available though the National Register.
Dennis High School is listed in the National Register:
Dennis High School, constructed in 1936, is significant for its importance in the education of African-Americans in Bishopville and Lee County and for its representation of the inequalities of South Carolina’s “separate but equal” educational system. In addition, the renovation of Dennis High School in 1954 is an excellent example of the state’s efforts to change these perceptions during the “Brown vs. Board of Education” era. In 1936, two new schools were constructed in Bishopville. Bishopville High School was built for the white students at a cost of about $71,000 and was designed by noted architect Henry Dudley Harrall.
Dennis High School was constructed by Edgeworth and McBride Contractors of Cheraw for Bishopville’s black students. It was built at a cost of $17,500 on land donated by local philanthropist Rebecca Dennis. The similarities between the design of the two schools suggest that Harrall had some hand in the design of Dennis High School also. The original Classical Revival style school building is an L-shaped, one-story, load-bearing red brick structure that rests on a masonry foundation. Recessed symmetrical wings flank the main block. A third wing, which gave the building its original L-shape, houses the auditorium. In 1954, a single classroom addition was built on the northern end of the rear elevation.