Community tears down separated past, builds new future together

AYNOR, SC (WMBF) - Demolition has begun on a building that holds a painful past for the Town of Aynor as they now work to take that piece of its history and transform it for the future.

The Nellie Burke Levister Elementary School has stood as a part of Aynor's, and the surrounding area's, history for more than 60 years, and is a part of many lives. Now the school will hold a different space in this community for the years to come.

Back in 1953, Diane Brown was one of the first students to ever step inside. "I can still see what it was like," she explained. "It paints a lot of memories. Lots of memories."

The now-dark halls of the school are filled with a mixture of painful and happy memories for the Aynor community, back in a world that was black and white.

"We didn't have a bus to ride on, and white kids did," said Brown.

The Annie Burke Levister School's peeling walls, missing windows and broken floors all make up one of Horry County's last remaining symbols of segregation.

Brown has certainly noticed time's effects. "Well it's still my school I'll say it like that," she said. "The walls are dilapidated. The wall and floors are deteriorated, but the bricks are still pretty, and you can still tell it was Levister."

The now-abandoned school will no longer stand as a reminder. Safety issues are forcing the Levister Development Activity Board to demolish this frame of history.

There is now "asbestos in the facility, lead in the walls, these kinds of things were a deciding factor," explained Calep Brown, who is in charge of the board.

Factors that will knock down the past, and open the door for a more positive future. After years of discussions, Aynor Mayor Keb Johnson rolled out the latest plans for a brand new $4 million community center that will stand in its exact place.

"Things can't always stay the way that they were 50 years ago," said Johnson.

The newest center in Horry County will have activity rooms, basketball courts, and a computer lab. Calep Brown is excited about the prospect, and "very impressed, very happy that we can do something now for the total community," he said.

But the millions of dollars to be used for the new center are only a small amount compared to what was spent in the early 1950s. Back then, the state of South Carolina shelled out $214 million to keep black children and white children in separate buildings, behind separate walls.

"They said separate and equal, but I don't know about that," said Diane Brown.

First through seventh-grade black students came from different parts of Horry County, from one-room schools of Allen, Cool Springs, Pleasant Hill, and Union Chapel, and were all funneled into the building.

At one point, Levister held "about 200 students," recalled Brown. "All at once. And they'd be all around. All around - very crowded.

The Levister School was one of many new schools in the state built as part of what was called the Equalization Program, designed to preserve segregation in schools. Brown says it's something she and other black students tried not to think about. "We were just glad to be out here," she remembered. "Very glad, compared to where you were."

Now the school that was once built to keep a community apart will lay the foundation to bring it together.

"If we're going to get a building where it's going to make an improvement, it's fine," Brown said. "We need something different."

The plans will be a first for the town, but Mayor Johnson says it's not meant to completely wipe away the traces of the old Levister School. He describes what he feels the community center will look like, saying, "You would actually see this is where you started. Then you progress through the building and see some of the different things, different technologies, and stuff we have to offer now. You can see this is where we've come."

Diane Brown feels the community is moving in the right direction. "What do they say? You have to change," she said. "Change with time, and that's what we're doing."

Before the building could be torn down, the South Carolina Historical Society did more research to make sure every piece of the school's history was recorded. Those involved with the project worked on a plaque to put in the community center to make sure all who use it will remember and reflect on the history.

Demolition on the school began on June 12, 2013.

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