Conway leaders vote to demolish part of historic school building following destructive fire

The unanimous decision comes almost a week after the old school property on Maple Street caught fire.
Published: Mar. 13, 2023 at 12:08 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 13, 2023 at 6:29 PM EDT
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - The historic former Whittemore Elementary School will be demolished.

City leaders in Conway voted Monday to demolish most of the building.

“I move to move forward with the demolishing of the damaged building,” said Mayor Barbara Bellamy. “And that we not touch the building that is separate and distinctly separated from the original school building.”

The unanimous decision comes almost a week after the old school property on Maple Street caught fire. Crews fought hotspots at the scene for over six hours.

Conway Police Chief Dale Long said his department interviewed a person of interest in connection to the fire and samples have been collected to be tested. Long added that there was evidence of squatters being in the building, and had found some bedding a drug paraphernalia.

Long added that since the fire, no one has entered the former school “because of the bad nature of the building.”

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is also investigating the cause of the fire.

The Whittemore Elementary building has been empty for decades and has remained a hot topic between the city and those wanting to preserve the property. First opened in 1954, the school is noted as being an equalization school in South Carolina, educating only African-American students prior to integration.

The city has owned the building since 2018 after it saw damage from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. It was later condemned in 2020 after the city found it beyond repair at the time.

Everyone on the Conway City Council agreed unanimously on Monday, remnants of the former Whittemore elementary will come down, but those who have spent years trying to preserve the building are now looking for other solutions.

“This fire has proven to be a like a death in our community,” said President of The Whittemore Racepath Society, Cherly Moore Adamson.

The future of the building became a frequent topic of discussion among city leaders, and those hoping to save it.

For former students like Adamson, it holds significant value for thousands across the community.

“It is so central to our identity as an African American community considering our history with equalization schools and segregation during my lifetime when I was a little girl,” she said.

As for city leaders, they said the decision made was hard but felt it was for the best.

“By the time you’ve remediated all the environmental concerns the structure is gone and the history with it. so unfortunate it’s an unfortunate tragedy that we’ve had to deal with today but I think we’ve done the best we can do with the circumstances that we have,” said City Administrator Adam Emrick.

as Adamson leads the Whittemore Historical Racepath Society, she said the fight still continues as they look to still honor a part of history.

“We face the reality that we will have to come up with some new plans to memorialize that history on that site and to turn that 10 acres into something that our community would be proud of,” said Adamson.

Conway City Manager Adam Emrick said the immediate next steps for city staff is to hire a contractor to remove the hazardous debris and asbestos.