Former students return to alma mater… the restored Fairfield High School

WINNSBORO – Don Prioleau has been saying to many people lately, “You’re going to be surprised what you see inside.” He was talking about the extensive restoration of Fairfield High School by some of its alumni, still true to their school.

Fannie Ford, Easter Samuels and Dorothy Smith, members of the class of ’71, admire the walls of Fairfield High memorabilia, including their class picture. | Photos/Barbara Ball

And on Sunday, everyone found out that he was right.

It was a day to behold as about 300 former students, local dignitaries and friends entered the building to relive the students’ glory days through not only the restoration, but through the memorabilia displayed for each class.

Following opening ceremonies Alumni President Don Prioleau and Vice President Robert Davis introduced town, school, county and state dignitaries. An entertaining welcome speech by Eva Armstrong brought the house down. Fannie Ford introduced alumni officers and Janie Davis gave a brief history of the school.

After a ribbon cutting and tour of the facility, refreshments were served in the cafeteria. For those who had attended the school, the day was one of catching up with former classmates and savoring the days when they were young.

Senator Mike Fanning cut the ribbon held by a collection of members from County Council, Town Council, School Board and Alumni Officers. (Look for more photos in next week’s Voice.)

The red brick school located at 403 Fairfield St. in Winnsboro was built in 1924 and initially accommodated grades 1-9. During the ensuing years, the school added secondary grades, but it was not referred to as a high school. In those days, African-American high schools were generally called ‘training schools,’ with the idea of training students for certain jobs rather than offering a true academic curriculum.

But the students and teachers at the Fairfield Training School rose above that distinction and the negative implication of its name. In 1963, they changed the name to Fairfield High School, and today the Fairfield High School Alumni Association owns the school’s main building and restored it to the days when it was the center of their world.

The school compound, which consisted of a main building, a gymnasium and two other buildings, closed in 1970 when Fairfield County schools were integrated. FHS students were transferred to Winnsboro High School, which was located across the bypass from where the Winnsboro Wal-Mart building stands today. Owned by the Fairfield County School District, the school’s stately main building sat empty for years and would have simply deteriorated with age, if not for the efforts of its devoted graduates.

Mrs. Eva Armstrong, class of ‘47, welcomed the crowd to the Open House. (See her entertaining speech on our Facebook page – The Independent Voice of Blythewood & Fairfield County)

By the late 1980s, several former FHS students began exploring the possibility of saving their old school building. The idea gained momentum, and they were soon planning an alumni reunion for the fall of 1989. It was a roaring success with almost 800 people coming together for a weekend of socializing, celebrating and planning the restoration in earnest.

According to Donald Prioleau, Class of ’62 and president of the alumni group since 1995, they were determined to save their beloved alma mater from desolation.

“This building has the kind of quality you don’t see much of anymore,” said Jean McCrory, the representative for the Class of ‘64 and a member of the alumni group’s Historical Committee. “It’s very well constructed, with high ceilings, thick walls and the hardwood floors are in great condition. Our goal is to preserve the original character as much as possible.”

On April 22, 2010, the association acquired the building for $5 and a promise to complete a laundry list of improvements within the first 10 years. Prioleau said they’ve kept those promises and more. So far, the group has volunteered untold hours of labor and raised funds to hire out other projects such as installing a new roof, gutters and windows and painting the exterior trim. Prioleau said they restored the restrooms to working order, painted the interior walls and refinished the hardwood floors.

Alumni Vice President Robert Davis (‘66) and President Donald Prioleau (‘62)

“The main building housed the principal’s office, several classrooms and the home economics room. The teachers’ lounge and the old cafeteria were in the basement,” McCrory said. “Our goal was to restore all of that to its original state. We did. But it took a lot more money and a lot more work.”

McCrory said the finished building will now ideally be used for a variety of recreational and community educational endeavors, such as a meeting place for scout troops and tutoring services.

Paging through the school’s yearbooks Sunday afternoon, it is evident there was a sweet bond between the teachers, and the students and the teachers are still cherished in their former students’ comments. Several, in fact, are still active in the alumni group.

“Each class stayed with the same home room teacher for all three years of high school,” McCrory recalled fondly, “from ninth grade to 11th grade, which back then was when you graduated. I’m still in touch with my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Bernice J. Brown, all the time! She lives across the street from the school, where she’s lived since she started teaching. When new teachers came to the school, they always boarded with Mrs. Brown until they got settled somewhere. And two other teachers, Miss Margaret Roseborough and Mrs. Maude Ross, are both in their 90s and very much part of our group.”

Gladys Allen, class of ‘64, shows the photo of her ninth grade class with a wall of memorabilia in a renovated classroom.

The devotion the former students have for the school is alive and well. As McCrory and Alumni Association Vice President Robert Davis (Class of ’66) paused for their photo in front of the school recently, an unidentified woman driving past the school rolled down her window and called out proudly: “Class of ‘52!”

McCrory and Davis smiled and waved.

Alumni meetings are held at 7:30 on the third Tuesday evening of every month at the school, and individual graduating classes hold their reunions at various times throughout the year. Lively reunions for the entire 650 registered alumni are planned every two or three years. They’re always held on Thanksgiving weekend and begin with a Friday evening banquet.

“Then, on Saturday, we have a parade through downtown Winnsboro,” McCrory added, eager to go on about the weekend of fun, “and each class is represented on a beautiful float – we have about 20 floats. After that, we have a big tailgate party on the football field at Garden Street behind the school. On Sunday, we end our weekend with a church service. It’s always a wonderful event. At our reunion, in 2013, we had over 400 people.”

Almost 300 attended the open house and toured the school.

“But we’re getting older and we’re dying off,” Prioleau, 73, laughed. “The class of ’55 is about our oldest class to actively participate. But the school will go on through our kids and grandkids. We’ve passed down the importance of it and many of them now volunteer their time and donate to further the project.”

“The combined work of so many people has kept the spirit of the restoration alive,” McCrory said. “This project is very dear to our hearts. That school produced some very good people.”

For more information or to donate to the Fairfield High School historical restoration, contact Donald Prioleau at 803-337-2105, or mail donations to the Fairfield High School Alumni Committee, P.O. Box 1182, Winnsboro, S.C. 29180.