George Fish students learned more than the 'three R's'

Elizabeth Patterson White, right, George Fish Class of 1959, shows old pictures from the school to Jean Watts, bottom left, and Ruth Watts, top left, at the Volunteer Faith Center in Fort Mill on Tuesday. In the background, Rev. Phillip Cargile, left, and Naomi Gilmore Stanley, Class of 1946, look at displays of pictures from the school.
Elizabeth Patterson White, right, George Fish Class of 1959, shows old pictures from the school to Jean Watts, bottom left, and Ruth Watts, top left, at the Volunteer Faith Center in Fort Mill on Tuesday. In the background, Rev. Phillip Cargile, left, and Naomi Gilmore Stanley, Class of 1946, look at displays of pictures from the school.

FORT MILL -- Paradise has tall, centuries-old oaks shading modest, tidy homes where Fort Mill's blacks have lived since the Civil War.

It is where teenagers did Chubby Checkers' twist and fell in love to The Temptations' perfect harmony. Families watched old propeller planes land at the airport.

On long school days, an occasional miscreant would slip out for candy at Miss Munchie's Place general store.

They learned more than just the "three R's" at the George Fish Colored School. They developed the skills and character to build careers surpassing the limited roles their parents had been allowed as janitors, sharecroppers and domestic workers.

Paradise runs along Steele Street and Doby's Bridge Road on both sides of Tom Hall Street. On Sunday, Paradise students will honor their alma mater on Steele Street by unveiling a monument commemorating not only those who made George Fish school special, but also the struggle to overcome in a climate that was separate, but not equal.

The monument also will honor the school's namesake, George Fish, a British plant manager for Springs Industries. He successfully advocated the blacks' right to have a brick school like those built for white children.

How Paradise got its name

A dozen George Fish graduates in their 60s and 70s gathered at the Volunteer Faith Center last week to finalize year-long plans for the monument's unveiling. They had donned gold T-shirts emblazoned with the school's mascot, a blue dolphin, and reminisced about jukeboxes playing a record for 5 cents, muddy dirt streets trekked to school and Dave Spratt's Barbershop and Grocery.

They recalled lore of how Paradise got its name.

Each Saturday morning, the women in Paradise poured boiling water into cast iron washpots outside, stirring clothing with wooden poles. Together, they sang traditional hymns like "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" and "Precious Lord, Take Me Home."

"The ladies would be out there singing, and somebody said, 'It sounds like Paradise,'" remembers John Sanders III, a 1964 alum and president of the George Fish School Committee.

"That's how the story goes."

Lemonade from lemons

George Fish wasn't the first school for blacks in Fort Mill. The Fort Mill Academy for white males was built on Banks Street during the Civil War. Churches later operated a school there for black children, calling it the Old Academy. A fire destroyed it around 1924.

When the George Fish Colored School was built in 1925, the black children felt forever destined to take hand-me-downs.

"The books were ones the white schools had thrown out," remembers Naomi Gilmore Stanley, class of 1946. "They weren't up to standard."

Stanley recalls that, to maintain the "separate but equal" legal pretext that permitted Southern segregation until the late 1960s and early 1970s, additions were built: a high school wing in 1947 and home economics facilities and a gym in 1958 and 1961, respectively.

What the school lacked was compensated by creativity the black teachers employed for their students.

While white schoolchildren dissected frogs delivered in formaldehyde to science labs, the George Fish children harvested them from a river branch behind the school.

"All the teachers taught us beyond what was given to them," added Elizabeth Patterson White, the 1959 class valedictorian.

"Our teachers were strict and very well-qualified," said Sanders. "They cared about us. The parents and teachers worked together. When we had plays and basketball games, everyone in the community came."

Strict, not humorless

There was no hanky-panky in the George Fish school. The coal stove was lit by the children, and the Lord's Prayer and Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag were said at 8 a.m. sharp. No walking in the hall during class. Anyone caught slipping out to Miss Munchie's was greeted with a switch or a strap.

"We didn't get away with much," Sanders recollected.

The teachers were not allowed to stay at hotels, so they sometimes lived in Paradise family homes. Osby Watts, class of 1957, recalls one teacher had dinner at his home regularly.

"I had to walk her back home," he remembers ruefully.

As the children grew, so did extracurricular activities: basketball, glee club, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Bobby Plair arrived from Great Falls to build a high school band. He required students to play John Philip Sousa, Beethoven, Tchai- kovsky.

"We wanted some hip music," Sanders said, "but we had to stand up straight and tall." The best students mentored newcomers.

"We became the famous George Fish Band. The Emmett Scott band and the George Fish Band were the most popular around," Sanders said, referring to the former all-black high school in Rock Hill.

When Plair left in 1961 to become choral director at Clinton Junior College, "Mr. Maxwell" arrived. He let the teenagers rock a bit, much to the principal's consternation.

During a parade down Main Street, Mr. Maxwell signaled the band to play tune No. 1 as they passed the principal's house.

"Probably John Philip Sousa," Sanders, the sousaphonist, said with a chuckle. "We passed the word down the line: 'No. 5.'"

They broke into "Rocket."

"We rocked out," Sanders laughed, "and we had our dance moves."

In time, the George Fish students and their parents were allowed to work around the mills, but it would take longer to be allowed inside.

The schools were integrated in 1968, and the George Fish School became Fort Mill Junior High School. It closed when Duke Power built its operations center at the school site.

Girls don't wear bobby socks and long, full skirts anymore. The jitterbug is called "the shag." Most mills have closed.

White, who was the first black, female school bus driver in Fort Mill -- earning $80 per month, $45 of it contributed by Springs Industries -- is now a retired elementary school administrator.

Stanley is a retired Cherokee County science teacher. Watts retired from Horizon. Sanders runs a landscaping business.

But they will arrive from points afar to march together through Paradise on Sunday and unveil a monument to adversity that made them strong.

George Fish was born in England in 1868 and became a superintendent at Springs Mill Plants 1 and 2. When officials planned to build a wooden plank school for children in Fort Mill's black community, he successfully advocated for a brick school like the one white children attended. The school was named for him. He died at 65 in 1933 in Greene County, N.C.