During the Colonial period, the earliest schools in what would become Lexington County were very few and far between and probably associated with churches. These schools were most likely taught by itinerant school teachers who sometimes traveled throughout the South.
South Carolina passed the Free School Act in 1811 to try to provide public funds for schools, but often these schools received very little from the state. In 1813, Lexington District (as the county was then known) had twelve schools educating about 200 students.
Many of these schools were “field” schools. Field schools were named after the fact that they were often constructed in a field that was no longer used for growing crops. Field schools were where poor and middle-class white children were educated. The enslaved were not allowed to go to school. Wealthier white children were taught by private tutors or went to private academies.
Teachers at field schools were most often male before the Civil War. These teachers were mostly farmers who taught on the side. The school year went with the agricultural seasons so that school was only in session when parents did not need their children to help with planting or harvesting crops. Schools were open during the winter and between July and September. Students did not have homework but had many chores to complete at home before and after school.
Schools in Lexington County in the antebellum period generally had 10 to 25 students of both sexes. Boys would go to school until around the age of 14 while girls mostly stopped school after age 10 or so. Students were grouped in the school by age, with younger students sitting on benches and using slates. Older students worked at a table with quill pens and paper. The school day was similar to today with school starting around 8:30 a.m. and ending around 3 p.m. Students received a lunch break and a short play time as well.
Students learned through memorization and copying, although items such as snake skins, animal bones, and more could be brought in for a kind of show and tell. Teachers could then teach the children about the natural world. Students learned what the teacher knew and spelled words how they spelled them. Frequent spelling errors in letters from this time period attest to this.
To learn more about schools and education in Lexington County’s history, visit the Lexington County Museum and see the circa-1815 Oak Grove Schoolhouse now on the grounds of the museum.
J.R. Fennell has served as director of the Lexington County Museum since 2007. He holds a masters degree in public history and a certificate of museum management from the University of South Carolina.
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