The Immanuel Institute

ImmanuelAfter the Civil War—which ended more than four centuries of slavery—it wasn't always easy for newly freed African Americans to get their bearings in the "new" South. In 1881, a missionary from the African American Presbyterian Missions for Freedmen named Reverend W.R. Coles came with his wife and five children to Aiken with two assignments. First, the reverend was to start a church; then, he was to establish a school in Aiken that ministered not only to the basic educational needs of his students, but would also give them the competitive skills they would need to be successful in industry.

A School Ahead of Its Time

Reverend Coles began his small church school in a cramped, six-room house he rented on Newberry Street. He taught reading, writing and math as well as specific job skills for trades like shoe repair and blacksmithing. The reverend valued music and included singing and piano lessons as part of his curriculum, setting his school apart from others of that time.

As the number of students increased, it soon became evident that a bigger facility was needed. Former slaves, such as Vincent Green and his mother, contributed money to purchase property on York Street in 1882.

Construction of a large white building with a covered, gingerbread-style entrance began. The building, finally completed in 1889, still stands in the same location today.

From the Immanuel Institute to the Jackson School

When the doors opened at last, the Immanuel Institute was both a church and a school. It also had a dormitory for students who did not live close enough to the school to attend classes. By 1901, the school had 11 instructors and 206 students. Although Immanuel Institute was closed for several years after Reverend Coles resigned his position in 1909, he had seen his school flourish and meet students' needs for more than two decades. In 1911, the Reverend James Jackson reopened the school. Immanuel Institute was renamed the Andrew Robertson Institute.

Aiken residents who attended the "Jackson School," as it was known during the 1920s and ‘30s, recalled fond memories of daily life at the school. Pageants were performed in the large assembly room at the top of the stairs. Classes were very small compared to class sizes of today, with only six to eight students per class. Students attended a daily devotional service with singing and music. The school did not have a cafeteria, but students could walk three blocks to the shops on Laurens Street to buy lunch if they did not bring their own.

School class

The Jackson School was private and charged tuition. However, as former students recalled, the school allowed parents to make tuition payments after they had been compensated for their cotton crops. Sometimes students had to leave their studies during cotton-harvesting season to help their families earn their school tuition. The Jackson School (Andrew Robertson Institute) closed in 1934.

Mid-Century Sees Changes

Over the years, the Immanuel Institute hosted teachers who instructed classes that ranged from music to machine repair and was known by various names, including Emanuel School, African School, New School and Immanuel Training School. It was even used as a movie theater for a short time until the Redemptorist Fathers, an African-American sect of the Catholic Church, purchased it in 1942 to begin the St. Gerard Parish with the mission to serve the black apostolate of Aiken. The second floor was remodeled into a church with plans for the first floor to be used as a school, but the Redemptorist Fathers never received adequate funding to complete their plans.

The Future: Cultural Icon of Aiken

After St. Gerard's closed in 1964, several businesses, including a Salvation Army store, operated on the site. In 2003 it was abandoned and the beautiful, historic building—one of the oldest structures in town—desperately needed attention. A group of concerned citizens and businesses worked together to preserve the old Immanuel Institute building. In 2004, it was purchased to become the site for the Center for African American History, Art & Culture (CAAHAC). The center's goal is to preserve and present the cultural legacy of the African-American Diaspora and to chronicle the vast contributions of African-Americans in Aiken County. Thanks to state and federal grants, the building has been completely restored. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The center is scheduled to open in 2012 to allow visitors to experience the cultural contributions of African Americans in Aiken and to enjoy the character of the building.

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Construction of a large white building with a covered, gingerbread-style entrance began. The building, finally completed in 1889, still stands in the same location today.

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