Organizations: Dorchester Academy
Mission-Driven: Officially chartered in 1875, the school that became Dor-chester Academy owes its existence to an organization known as the American Missionary Association (AMA). The group began as an abolitionist movement before the Civil War and opened schools for freedmen throughout the South during Reconstruction. The catalyst was William Golding, a local black legislator and member of Midway’s Congrega-tionalist Church, which had ties to the AMA, says Deborah Robinson, director of the Dorchester Academy Museum.
Community Center: Dor-chester operated as a private, community school until 1940, Robinson says, when Liberty County established a separate high school for black students. After the school closed, the AMA helped the community make use of the space by forming the Dorchester Cooperative Center, which offered a farmer’s co-op, vegetable garden, chicken farm and a credit union. A cottage built for the center’s director now houses the museum, and an annex built onto the back of the former dorm is a community center. Those are the only two structures that remain of several buildings that once occupied the 30-acre campus.
The Rights Stuff: In the 1960s, Dorchester served as a training center for the Southern Christian Leadership Confer-ence’s Citizenship Education drives. Robinson, who was a schoolteacher at the time, remembers busloads of volunteers rolling each week to train with Andrew Young, Dorothy Coton, Septima Clark and other movement leaders. “They trained some 2,000 trainers,” says Board President Bill Austin, “and they in turn went back to their communities and educated 70,000 voters across the South.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Young and other leaders also planned the 1963 march on Birming-ham at Dorchester. Austin says these distinctions earned the academy its National Landmark status, one of only about 50 in the state, as well as a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Help Wanted: Unfor-tunately, Dorchester is also on the National Trust’s list of 200 most endangered sites. Replacing the roof, Austin says, is the most pressing need and will likely run in the neighborhood of $80,000. The organization has around $30,000 set aside for the project, and recently received a state grant. Its annual fund-raiser, Walk to Dorchester – a nine-mile trek that Austin says draws former students who are approaching (or past) their 80th birthdays – brings in around $25,000.
Those funds have allowed renovations of the existing structures. Liberty County helped out by leasing land on the campus and rebuilding an aging pavilion. “We have a lot of public involvement locally,” says Austin, who’s also mayor of nearby Riceboro, “almost to the greatest extent possible considering … we’re a Tier One community. We will continue to fight the fight until we have finished the task.” – Shannon Wilder