Fort Mill Times

Fort Mill History Museum exhibit showcases local African-Americans

The wall with Daniel Watts and other notables who have been “firsts” in Fort Mill.
The wall with Daniel Watts and other notables who have been “firsts” in Fort Mill.

Daniel Watts, Fort Mill’s first African-American Town Council member, said he looks back fondly on the residents who voted for him.

“They were just great people,” he said.

Watts, 79, also served as Mayor Pro Tem and was the first African-American in Fort Mill to be elected to the school board.

“It was an experience, I tell you that,” he said. “I enjoyed the time I was on there.”

In the Fort Mill History Museum, Watts’ photo hangs among that of Waddell Kiser, Fort Mill’s first African-American police officer and Elizabeth Patterson, who, in 1941, became the first African-American woman in South Carolina to be licensed to drive a school bus, said Ann Evans, Fort Mill History Museum executive director.

The display also includes a list of the town’s first WWI African-American soldiers.

In honor of February’s Black History Month, the museum, now housed in the historic Wilson House on Clebourne Street, is showcasing African-Americans who helped mold Fort Mill’s past with the “Men of the Monument: Focus on Fort Mill’s African-American Heritage” exhibit, Evans said.

“We try to take national holidays and focus on Fort Mill’s history and contributions to that period of time or event,” she said.

Watts said he is excited to be included in the exhibit and recognizes its importance.

“Most people don’t know anything about what’s going on in Fort Mill, especially back then,” he said. “It’s good to know about history, especially the roles that African-Americans have played in Fort Mill.”

Watts said he would like to see more African-Americans represent their communities on councils and boards.

The museum also honors George Fish and features a model of the monument erected for the George Fish Colored School, which ran from 1925 to 1968. Evans said the George Fish School is a proud moment for Fort Mill residents as Fish fought to bring quality education to African-American students during segregation.

Another part of the exhibit, in the Samuel Elliott White Gallery, is a timeline of Fort Mill’s history through artists’ eyes that focuses on African-American influence.

“We’ve brought in additional items that speak to that part of the community,” Evans said.

The gallery also speaks to the importance slavery played to the economy of South Carolina and includes artifacts such as the Springfield Day Book by John Springs and stories such as Lucy Phifer’s, who was born a slave in 1844 and made a trip to Liberia, Africa, with her husband before facing personal tragedy and finding her way back to Fort Mill.

Fort Mill was the second town in the nation to establish a monument honoring African-American slaves, an effort spearheaded by Samuel Elliott White with the creation of Confederate Park. White, a Confederate Army captain, not only honored the slaves that stayed in Fort Mill after emancipation, but also Catawba Indians, Confederate soldiers, women and others who fought or served the Fort Mill community during the war, Evans said.

“He wanted to show an appreciation for the sacrifices everyone had made during that time,” she said.

The exhibit aims to bring attention to African-Americans who called Fort Mill home, Evans said.

“It’s significant for people to know what contributions to history African-Americans of Fort Mill have made and garner an appreciation of Fort Mill’s history, its many characters and contributors,” she said.

Amanda Harris: @Amanda_D_Harris

Want to see it?

The Men of the Monument: Focus on Fort Mill’s African-American Heritage exhibit runs through Feb. 29. The museum, in the Wilson House on Clebourne Street near the top of Main, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. The museum also accepts donations of objects, photos and documents relating to Fort Mill history.

Upcoming Talk

Aron “Paul” Seaborn, author of “The Mourners’ Bench: How God Saved An Illiterate Sinner Like Me,” will speak at the museum on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 6 p.m. Reservations are required. For more information, contact the Fort Mill History Museum at 803-802-3646 or info@FMHM.org.

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