Chester, South Carolina
The Brainerd Heritage Foundation maintains a website showing present activities on the old campus. The National Register application for Kumler Hall also contains a history of the school. Home Mission Monthly contained news snippets from the various schools supported by the Presbyterian Church from the 1880’s through the 1920’s. Lewis Kennedy McMillan’s 1953 Negro Higher Education in the State of South Carolina discusses the significance of Brainerd Institute. The image of the "Old Mansion" (right) is from Home Mission Monthly.
In 1866 Miss E. E. Richmond of New York opened a Freedman’s Bureau school for Blacks near Chester, SC. Two years later that school passed over to the Home Mission Society of the Presbyterian Church. Beginning as an elementary school, Brainerd was able to add two years in 1912 and a full high school education by 1920. In 1935 it underwent a name change to Brainerd Junior College. As more educational opportunities became available for Blacks, the Home Mission Society withdrew support, and so the school closed in 1939.
Reports in Home Mission Monthly tended to focus on vocational programs and teacher training to demonstrate the usefulness of their schools to the Black communities. (Note the images below of a sewing class and student painters). But we have very little information on other student activities. The Palmetto Leader twice notes that musical groups from Brainerd Junior College were part of an area program.
McMillan notes, “Brainerd provided all the education for Chester’s Negroes from 1868 until the turn of the century. It provided all of the high school training for Chester into the 1920’s.”
Since 2008 The grounds of Brainerd Institute have been used for “Workshops in Open Fields,” developed by Dr. Vivian Ayers Allen, a 1939 Brainerd graduate. The first years focused on dance and the arts. Since 2017 the focus has been on pre-school (grades 4-6) literacy programs. As Kumler Hall nears completion the plan is to continue these programs indoors year around.
Bricks and Mortar
Miss Richmond began classes in a log cabin on the Brawley estate, five miles outside Chester. In 1882 the Home Missions board purchased the deGraffenried property, one-third of a mile east of downtown Chester. This property included the “Old Mansion,” a two- story frame structure measured “50 by 80 feet with extended piazzas.” In addition to classrooms it provided dormitory rooms for girls.
As funds became available, more buildings were added, with students doing much of the labor. The first brick structure was the Martha Tweed Administration Building, dating from around 1901. Kumler Hall, a boys’ dormitory, was added in 1916.
McMillan reported that when Brainerd Institute closed, the campus contained 21 acres with brick buildings. But the campus was sold to the Chester School Board, which proceeded to sell most of it off to private interests. The former Administration Building was used as an elementary school, but in 1953 McMillan found it to be a “run down, neglected hole.” Former dormitory building were “cheapened and desecrated” by the itinerate workers who lived in them.
In the 1990’s local groups began efforts to raise funds to renovate Kumler Hall. These efforts were joined by Allen and her daughters, actress Phylicia Rashad and dancer Debbie Allen. In 1999 Rashad purchased the campus, and work to restore Kumler Hall has continued.
The old campus today is bounded by Cemetery St. (east), Lancaster Rd. (south), Loomis St. (west), and Marquis St. (north). The Tweed Buildings was deemed structurally unsound. The satellite map shows no trace of it today. Kumler Hall, at the north side of the campus, was placed on the National Register in 1983.
The only sports reference I found for Brainerd Institute prior to the junior college era was a 1925 baseball loss to Harbison. College Football Data Warehouse gives some game results from 1934 to 1937. Opponents were similar Black schools in South Carolina: Livingstone College (a loss and a draw); Clinton Junior College (two wins and three losses); Friendship Junior College (two wins and a draw); Mather Academy (a loss), and Anderson Fitting School (a loss).
Kumler Hall today. Image courtesy of Brainerd Institute Heritage