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Faith Cabin Library — Seneca, South Carolina

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Faith Cabin Library

This small, rustic library in Seneca stands as a rare remaining example of a Faith Cabin Library. The libraries, established in the 1930s and early 1940s by Saluda native Willie Lee Buffington, contrast greatly with the Carnegie Libraries that were constructed in South Carolina, and around the nation, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whereas Carnegie Libraries – which were mostly segregated when built – were funded by corporate tycoon Andrew Carnegie and often architecturally impressive, Faith Cabin Libraries were organized by an impoverished white mill worker for black communities and were housed in simple log cabins. The idea for these humble libraries, which eventually boasted volumes by the thousands, came to Buffington with the encouragement of his friend and mentor, an African-American man named Euriah Simkins.

Faith Cabin Library

(Bill Fitzpatrick of Taylors, 2013 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent)

Simkins was a teacher at a black school that neighbored the white school which Buffington attended during his childhood. Simkins developed a relationship with the Buffingtons, particularly with young Willie Lee, when he crossed their property on his way to work each day. Willie Lee Buffington’s father, who sat on the local school board, also issued Simkins’ monthly paycheck. Cotton farmers, the Buffingtons suffered economic devastation when the boll weevil ravaged their crops in the early 1920s. As a result, Willie Lee was forced to quit school at age 12 and work in a sawmill with his father to help support the family. He was an only son and had five sisters. Still, Willie Lee was encouraged by his father and Simkins, both of whom strongly valued education, to continue his studies when possible.

Seneca Junior College Faith Cabin Library

Michael Miller of Spartanburg, 2012 © Do Not Use Without Written Consent)

Buffington was unable to return to school for another four years. At 16, he entered the Martha Berry School in Rome, Georgia, where students could work for their tuition, room, and board. Willie Lee dug a sewer and drove a garbage truck. Simkins, who earned just $187.50 a year as a teacher, helped support Buffington during this time by sending him a dollar a month – 6.4% of his annual salary. Buffington studied at the school for just two years before illness and his family’s finances necessitated his return. By then, his father had relocated to Ninety-Six to work in a textile mill. Buffington joined his father at the mill, later marrying his childhood sweetheart and moving to Edgefield.

Euriah Simkins

Euriah Simkins, Buffington’s Mentor and Lifelong Friend
(USC School of Library and Information Science, Date Unknown)

When a Rosenwald School called Plum Branch was dedicated in nearby Saluda, Simkins invited Buffington to attend the ceremony. (Rosenwald Schools, sponsored by Sears and Roebuck’s president, Julius Rosenwald, were built around the South in the first half of the twentieth century to educate African-American students and combat the disparities caused by segregation.) While deeply proud of the two-room building, both Simkins and Buffington were saddened by its complete absence of books. Public libraries in that day were also segregated, and schools afforded most black children – and adults – their only chance to read. From that moment, Buffington felt called to establish libraries for black communities with what few resources he had. At the time he had not graduated from high school himself.

Willie Lee Buffington

Willie Lee Buffington as a Young Man
(USC School of Library and Information Science, Date Unknown)

This lack of books haunted Buffington. Later in life, he recounted that soon after visiting Saluda, he was able to set aside one dime. With this, he went to the post office and bought five two-cent stamps. Choosing five churches across the country, at random, he wrote to each asking for a single book. Four churches did not respond. The fifth letter, unbeknownst to Buffington, reached a black minister in Harlem. The Reverend L. H. King of St. Mark’s Methodist Church wrote back two months later to say his congregation had collected 800 books and would send them via rail. By the time they arrived, packed in wooden barrels, that number had grown to over 1,000.

Plum Branch Rosenwald School

Plum Branch Rosenwald School in Saluda
(SC Department of Archives and History, Date Unknown)

There were so many books, in fact, that Simkin’s Rosenwald School at Plum Branch could not house them all. The pair decided to take the remaining volumes to a nearby African-American church, where they stacked them on the stage and held a meeting to ask community members if they would like to build a library – an unheard of idea at the time. Buffington explained that they had no money and would have to do all the work themselves. His plan was to fell local timber both for the building itself and also to pay for the millwork and windows. They would build the library with their own hands. A woman in the audience said they should call it their Faith Cabin Library because they had nothing but faith. The name stuck, and the first Faith Cabin Library was completed in Saluda in 1932.

Seneca Students Faith Cabin Library

Buffington with Students at the Faith Cabin Library in Saluda
(USC School of Library and Information Science, Date Unknown)

Over the years, Buffington blossomed into what one writer puts as a “champion beggar of books.” By the time he graduated from high school, in 1935, at the age of 27 and with a wife and two children, he had organized the construction of two more rural libraries in South Carolina. The libraries were equipped with kerosene lamps, a fireplace, and homemade tables and stools. Each bore a sign on the wall that summed up Buffington’s philosophy in one word: Others.

Opening Day at the Faith Cabin Lirabry

Opening Day at Saluda’s Faith Cabin Library
(USC School of Library and Information Science, 1932)

Buffington briefly attended Wofford College after finishing high school, where he worked in a mill between attending classes. A nontraditional student with a family and job, he eventually transferred to Furman University, where he was given a scholarship. Upon graduating from Furman he also received a scholarship to study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. The seminary focused on social justice, and Buffington’s Faith Cabin Libraries earned him his tuition. Martin Luther King, Jr. studied alongside Buffington at Crozer.

Willie Lee Buffington

Willie Lee Buffington, Surrounded by Donated Books
(Greenstone Digital Library, Date Unknown)

While in seminary, Buffington worked as the Director of Christian Education at a local black church, which helped him support his family as he completed his studies. He also continued to collect books for libraries back home in South Carolina with the help of his father and Simkins. Following seminary, Buffington became a professor at Benedict College in Columbia, a historically black college, while continuing to establish libraries. In all, 26 Faith Cabin Libraries were built in South Carolina, and 50 were built in Georgia.

Faith Cabin Library Exterior

Exterior of Seneca’s Faith Cabin Library
(KudzuVine, Wikimedia Commons, 2007)

The Faith Cabin Library shown at the top this page was built in 1937 as part of Seneca Junior College, a college begun in 1899 to help local black students complete their education. The books within the library were donated by students of Oberlin College in Ohio, giving the library the nickname of the Oberlin Unit or Oberlin Library. The library closed in 1939 with the shuttering of Seneca Junior College, which struggled during the Great Depression. However, many other Faith Cabin Libraries served readers, both black and white, until the early 1970s. The grounds of the former Seneca Junior College were converted into the Seneca Family Life Center, a community center, in 1978. The community center maintains the Faith Cabin Library. South Carolina’s only other remaining Faith Cabin Library is located in the Anderson County community of Pendleton.

Senea Faith Cabin Library Fireplace

Interior of Seneca’s Faith Cabin Library Today
(SC Department of Archives, 2012)

Euriah Simkins died in 1944 and is buried in Lockhart. Willie Lee Buffington died in Saluda in 1988. Both men passed away with little notice from the outside world, but together these two friends left a legacy of which all South Carolinians can be proud.

Oberlin Unit Faith Cabin Library in Seneca

Exterior of Oberlin Unit Faith Cabin Library in Seneca, Date Unknown
(Greenstone Digital Library, Date Unknown)

The Faith Cabin Library at Seneca Junior College is listed in the National Register:

The Faith Cabin Library at Seneca Junior College is significant for its role in African American education and social history in South Carolina between 1937 and 1939. This building, constructed in 1937 and known as the Oberlin Unit because it was largely the result of the interest and efforts of students at Oberlin College in Ohio, is important on a local level for its impact on the African American community in Oconee County, and on the state level as one of only two remaining free-standing Faith Cabin Libraries extant of the thirty built in South Carolina between 1932 and 1943. The Faith Cabin Library at Seneca Junior College was a part of the larger Faith Cabin Library program created by Willie Lee Buffington, a white mill worker who later became a Methodist minister and college professor, that offered library services to rural African Americans in South Carolina. The segregation laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century barred African Americans from using other library facilities beyond what was offered in Columbia and Charleston. The black community in Seneca was one of the thirty communities fortunate to participate in the Faith Cabin Library program. With donated money and timber from the community, and books from the students of Oberlin College, Buffington established the library, a free-standing two-room log cabin, on the campus of Seneca Junior College. When the Faith Cabin Library program began, the faculty of the college contacted Buffington to build a library on the campus. The library remained open for only two years, when in 1939 Seneca Junior College closed its doors due in part to the construction of a new black high school nearby and the economic impact of the Great Depression. It is the only building remaining from the Seneca Junior College campus.

Faith Cabin Library Info

Address: 298 South Poplar Street, Seneca, SC 29678
GPS Coordinates: 34.680745,-82.959569

Faith Cabin Library Map

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4 Comments about Faith Cabin Library

Cheryl Buffington Hughes says:
July 19th, 2019 at 2:16 pm

Proud to say he is a distant cousin of mine. I was brought up much as Im sure he was. To size a person up by character, not color.

Lydia Pappas says:
March 19th, 2018 at 12:46 pm

You can watch film of these Faith Cabin Libraries that Willie Lee Buffington shot here: https://mirc.sc.edu/islandora/object/usc-test%3A180

Tom Perry says:
March 29th, 2017 at 9:42 am

“A Friendship, A Dime, and a Dream”
Pocol Press 6023 Pocol Drive Clifton VA 20124

A chance meeting between a young white boy and an African American community mentor leads to an altruistic obsession in this one-of-a-kind biography. Willie Lee Buffington (1908-1988), even as a young lad, never understood the Jim Crow mentality of Deep South America in the first half of the 20th century. As a dirt poor textile mill worker, he secures a dime to purchase five stamps, sending letters off requesting books to uneducated African Americans. Buffington also works hard to become highly educated himself, parlaying his studies into a professorship. Buffington’s work ethic and empathy for his fellow man eventually snowballs into over one hundred Faith Cabin Libraries throughout South Carolina and Georgia. The remarkable Buffington, relatively unknown, becomes a civil rights icon in this powerful story of faith and good works.

The book is also available on Amazon.com as an e-book from the Kindle store.

Susan Milliken says:
October 25th, 2015 at 4:00 pm

What a beautiful friendship and story of how the love of learning and of books connects us all. So much of SC's history of race relations during this same time period is negative; it means so much to know of the tiny Faith Libraries and their impact. I hope to travel to see the Seneca library.

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