I recently received a book by Sherman E. Pyatt about the history of Burke High School. Pyatt, a 1970 graduate of the school, is an archivist at the Avery Research Center, but I know him best as one of the most proficient snare drummers ever to come out of Burke High.
Fundamentally, Pyatt’s book, Burke High: 1894-2006, is a compilation of pictures chronicling the school’s history. From the beginning I was fascinated. Though it currently is a perpetually low-performing school that is being monitored by the state education department, Burke’s history is one of outstanding achievement in the face of adversity.
The Rev. John L. Dart, for whom Charleston County’s J.L. Dart Library on King Street is named, started the school in a building formerly located at the corner of Bogard and Kracke streets. Until Burke, there was no public school in the city for African Americans since compulsory education for blacks was opposed at the state and local levels. In 1894 Dart opened the privately funded Charleston Industrial Institute on property he owned.
Repeated requests to the Charleston School Board to assume responsibility for the school went unanswered until 1911, when the school board opened the Charleston Colored Industrial School with an all-white faculty at Burke’s present site at Fishburne and President streets; there were 375 students. Construction of the school cost about $19,000; $10,000 of that amount was contributed by private donors.
Dart Hall, the building formerly occupied by the school, eventually became the county’s first public library for African Americans.
In 1916, the school’s white faculty and administrator were replaced with 16 black teachers and a black principal. In 1921 the school was renamed for deceased Charleston School Board member James E. Burke.
By 1949 Burke’s enrollment had increased to nearly 1,800 students. Some 300 lived outside the peninsula; they were not provided state-sponsored transportation, unlike their white counterparts.
The school offered 10 day and evening vocational courses to five times as many students as all-white Murray Vocational. In 1951 Burke’s enrollment was 1,737 compared to Murray’s 290. Federal funding at Murray for teachers then was about $11,000 annually, compared to Burke’s approximately $4,000 annual federal aid contribution.
The opening of C.A. Brown High on the city’s east side in 1962 helped to reduce Burke’s overcrowding. But it wasn’t enough. Ten years later some 1,500 of the school’s more than 1,700 students staged a walkout to protest the lack of cafeteria, library, and classroom space. Burke’s cafeteria had a seating capacity for only 250 students.
Overcrowding and under-funding have been Burke’s legacy, but throughout its history the school has achieved excellence academically, artistically, and athletically. In the mid-1940s, English teacher and choral instructor Eugene Hunt developed a 250-voice choir. Beginning in 1941, football coach Joseph A. Moore led the school to an unprecedented four consecutive undefeated seasons. Burke graduates were the first of their race to enter the Duke University School of Medicine (Delano Meriwether ), Clemson University (Harvey Gantt) and the Medical University of South Carolina (Bernard Deas).
Facing an uncertain future as school officials struggle to develop an academic program that will keep it open, the challenge for Burke High will be to continue to produce quality students. Given its history, I would say Burke is up to it.
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