Keeping a legacy alive

  • Friday, April 18, 2014

With their annual meeting approaching April 25, members of the Dorchester Free School Board are looking forward to giving back to DD2 students – this is their 290th year to do so.

Thomas Dion, clerk-treasurer of the DFSB, has been on the board since 1997. Prior to serving on the board he was a civil engineering professor at the Citadel for 38 years and had just retired.

“I have been in the education business for most of my life,” he said.

Dion explains a “free school” dates back to 1569 in Dorchester, England. At the time Queen Elizabeth was in power and was promoting literature renewal with Shakespeare works, theatre, acting, etc. She granted the people of Dorchester a charter for what would be called a free school, which was created for those who were incapable of paying school tuition.

Dion said Queen Elizabeth dictated what subject matter would be taught, but did not give any funding for the school. English author Thomas Hardy gave funds to the school, which subsequently led to an order of trustees to look after the funds. That school in England is still open and known as the Thomas Hardye School.

Eventually when the immigrants came to Massachusetts they brought the concept of a free school along with them, then some of them moved to Dorchester, S.C. and established the free school again.

“You wouldn’t know a civil engineer would know all that stuff,” Dion said.

The DFSB dates back to 1724 when the Colonial Legislature authorized the creation of a free school board in the Puritan settlement of Dorchester on the Ashley River, Dion said. The school was to be built and governed by a board of commissioners whose purpose was to provide educational opportunities to the town’s children.

A press release from the DFSB states that the board’s challenge was to raise funds to underwrite construction of a schoolhouse and a residence for the school master - a painstakingly slow process given the limited resources and the small number of settlers. After decades of effort by the commissioners, the free school opened in 1758 and met classes until 1781 when British troops burned the buildings. The school was rebuilt in 1797 and remained in operation until 1817 at which time the board received permission to move the school to the growing town of Summerville.

Funds from the sale of the schoolhouse and land in Dorchester were used to build a school in Summerville, which opened in 1818 and flourished during the antebellum years. The board lost most of its funds during the Civil War and did not recoup the losses until the turn of the century.

In 1906 the board used its assets, augmented by citizen donations and a grant from the Town of Summerville to buy land and build an elementary school on Laurel Street. Six years later the commissioners sold the land and the building to the trustees of School District 18, and the Laurel Street School continued educating the children of the community until the mid-1950s when it was bulldozed to make room for a playground.

Dion said since the 1940s the DFSB has been awarding scholarships to college-bound kids in the area. Three scholarships are currently offered including the Daisy Richardson Doar Scholarship, the Tommy Cuthbert Memorial Scholarship and one four-year medical scholarship.

Students must apply to be qualified for these scholarships. A total of four students are receiving the scholarships this year and will be announced at the board’s upcoming annual meeting.

DFSB President Stephen Hutchinson has been on the board nearly 31 years – the longest out of all current board members.

“Over the course of its long and colorful history the Dorchester Free School Board has weathered the storms of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Great Depression,” Hutchinson said in the news release, “but its mission has remained steadfast - to provide learning opportunities to young people.”

Dion said the purpose is to “improve the fabric of the community.”

“We get satisfaction of trying to improve the quality of life in our area here,” he said. “It’s just a matter of service to the community and just taking pride in what our predecessors set up. We’re trying to keep the legacy alive.”

Dion said the members understand that the DFSB is the oldest continually-operating school board in the country.

“The current members have a passion in trying to maintain the enthusiasm that our forebearers had in promoting educational opportunities for the students in the area,” he said. “We try to improve on that from year to year.”

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