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Benson Building

The Center for Child and Family Studies is housed in the former Florence C. Benson Elementary School, now owned by the University of South Carolina.

Built January-September 1954, a unique historical moment in South Carolina, the Benson School was part of South Carolina’s unprecedented boom of public school building in the early 1950’s, which brought greatly needed new, modern facilities to many desperately underserved areas of South Carolina. However, this boom was brought about by the state’s “equalization program,” a final attempt to keep in place the “separate but equal” division of the races in public education. In historic irony, children all over South Carolina, especially the poor, greatly benefitted from these new schools, but at the cost of entrenched segregation.

The Benson School, originally called The Wheeler Hill Elementary School for Negroes, was an important arrival to the neighborhood. It was considered a “modern and up-to-date building” that was distinguished by the novel use of “bright colors selected to appeal to youngsters of elementary school age” such as “rose, green, blue and cream.” (The State 10.01.54) It also had its own “cafetorium,” a large lunchroom that doubled as an auditorium. The previous school had not had such a space and so all school-wide gatherings had been held outside. Alexzena Irving Furness, who was a fourth grader when the school opened on October 4, 1954, said, “There was a sense of pride that everybody at Wheeler Hill felt at the time. It was the sense of having something of our own.” (The State 2.9.2010)

Benson Building

The school, designed by local white architect James B. Urquhart, was built with a “three-finger plan,” three rectangular buildings connected by stairwells stair-stepping up a hill. The first, lowest, level housed 1st-2nd grades, the second level housed 3rd-4th grades and the top level 5th-6th grades. It was designed to make as much use of natural light possible both for economy and comfort. It had 18 classrooms, a library, a nurse’s office, and a large kitchen. The equalization funds also paid for desks, tables, visual aid and music equipment, maps, and cafeteria equipment. (SCDAH)

Wheeler Hill Elementary’s opening alleviated the gross overcrowdingHistory of the local Celia Dial Saxon Elementary School for Negroes, which was teaching “double sessions” to accommodate its enrollees. Local schools at the time were reporting up to 50 students in a class so the new schools were eagerly awaited.

The school as re-named for the long-time and beloved teacher Florence C. Benson in 1958; Benson died, after 38 years of service to the Negro school system, in 1954.

Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, the building remains intact with limited modernization or alterations.