A Woman with a Vision: Martha Schofield

marthaThe end of the Civil War in April of 1865 marked a time of rebuilding all over the southern part of the United States. Aiken, South Carolina was no exception. The federally guided Reconstruction drew many people from the Northern part of the country who were prompted by their religious faith to participate. Martha Schofield, born in 1839 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and raised as a Quaker, was one of these Northerners.

The Religious Society of Friends, also known as “Quakers,” began in England in the 1600s. When Quakers first came to America, they, like other European immigrants, owned slaves. In the mid-1700s, leaders of The Friends signed a document that stated: "To bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against."

Their efforts brought an end to the importation of slaves in the Northern states. By 1804, most slavery had been abolished in New England, Middle Atlantic states and the territories in the Northwest. But in the Southern states, including South Carolina, slavery was still legal. The Quakers worked with other abolitionists to create a system of people and places called “The Underground Railroad” that aided slaves in escaping their captivity.

A Decision To Help Others

Martha was a young woman of 25 in 1865 when she decided to spend her life helping people who had been enslaved. Martha went to work for The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, often called “The Freedmen's Bureau.” It had been created by Congress to provide food and medicine for people after the war and to establish schools, among other services. She took her life savings of little more than $400 and set out for the islands off the coast of South Carolina. Scores of former slaves had found refuge from the danger of the plantations during the war on St. Helena Island.

Many former slaves did not know how to read or write. Unfortunately, because of the tropical climate and the many diseases that are carried by mosquitoes, Martha fell ill. Wanting to continue her work and learning that Aiken offered a healthier climate, she soon moved to Aiken to teach in a place where she could recover her health.

When she arrived in Aiken in 1868, Martha bought two acres of land on the east side of today’s York Street. She began work on her plans for a “Normal” school, a school that teaches students to become teachers themselves and an “Industrial” school, a school that teaches occupational skills. When the Schofield School opened in 1870, every child was taught the basic skills of reading, writing and math. However, boys learned additional skills such as how to be blacksmiths, shoemakers and carpenters, while girls were taught “home skills” like cooking and sewing. One of Schofield’s students, Matilda Evans, later gained recognition throughout the country as the state’s first female African-American physician.

Schofield School

A Successful School

The school was very successful but hard to keep afloat with meager government funds. Fundraising efforts described in school brochures from that time show that people from the North donated a significant amount. Susan B. Anthony, a famous women’s suffrage leader, was one of many people who sent financial aid to Schofield School. The AME Church in Aiken also raised money and provided the support necessary to keep the doors from closing. Miss Schofield often allowed families to trade goods and services to pay for student expenses. She became a well-loved and well-respected immigrant to the South.

On the eve of her 77th birthday on February 1, 1916, Martha died in her sleep. A large birthday party had been planned to honor her remarkable life with more than 300 people attending. Instead, when it was discovered that she had died, the school bell rang to alert everyone of her passing.

Three days later, her casket was placed on a train car at the depot in Aiken to be sent back to her home state of Pennsylvania for burial in her family’s plot. Many who had planned to celebrate her birthday were at the train depot to say goodbye to their beloved teacher. With tearful respect, the spiritual “Steal Away” began to be sung and soon the entire station was filled with a heartfelt tribute to a woman who spent her adult life pursuing her vision of helping those who had been the victims and the refugees of the Civil War.

Today, the white bell tower whose bell kept students on schedule and announced the passing of its founder is the only surviving piece of the original Schofield School.

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