Light on a Hill
Posted on: February 3, 2021
You’ve heard that a single candle — held up in the darkest of nights — can actually be seen from dozens of miles away. Well, it was certainly true with North Greenville, today one of the most notable Christian universities in the Southern U.S. but originally only a little high school. Its founders could have never guessed how far its light would shine.
A HIGH SCHOOL? A HIGH SCHOOL!
It was like any other Wednesday night meeting at a Baptist church in the mountains of South Carolina, with a small, dedicated crowd gathered to talk about all the usual subjects: missions and budgets and prayer requests. That is, until John Ballenger raised his hand.1
“A high school,” he suggested.
Ballenger pleaded with the other members of the North Greenville Baptist Association (NGBA) to consider building a high school from the ground up, which could service families in northern Greenville County towns, like Travelers Rest and Marietta.2
A high school? It was quite the novel idea in 1891, at a time when there were only a handful of high schools in the entire county, perhaps no more than three.3
The room, no doubt, quieted in thought. Then one by one, or maybe all at once, the others piped in with their agreement.
“I think we should do it, too.”
“Sure. Why not?”
“This might work.”
A high school. Yes, they needed one. And like that, the wheels began to turn.
THE DARK CORNER THEN
At this point in history, the northern Greenville area was in the heyday of the lifestyle that earned it the notorious nickname the “Dark Corner,” suitable not only for the perceived backwardness of its residents, but also for their law-breaking tendencies.
In fact, the primarily Scottish and Irish immigrants who populated Glassy Mountain and the surrounding towns were mostly uneducated and poor. Children learned to keep the farm like Daddy did. What little money they had came from selling crops. But you could sell corn whiskey for more money than corn by the bushel!4
The residents’ motives for moonshine went beyond rebellion for its own sake; they constructed stills and made liquor at night for the money, and anyone who threatened that source of steady income became an enemy.
“Essentially, the failure of the United States to acknowledge the cultural and economic factors behind home distillation was the root cause of the most violent resistance. After outlawing the practice, the federal government failed to present the whiskey-producing population with a viable economic alternative,” wrote history professor Joshua Beau Blackwell.5
So it was that the Dark Corner came to earn quite a reputation for the “illegal whiskey-making, mountain feuds, a few killings, and lawless acts”6 that were all too common here.
The area saw little prospect of change.
AN ACT OF FAITH
But less than a month after Ballenger’s initial idea, the NGBA — then comprised of around 30 area churches7 — met for its larger annual meeting. Naturally, the topic of a high school came up once again.
As they began to give further consideration and add up the cost, they realized it would be an expensive decision, that’s for sure. They would need to purchase land, construct a school house, hire employees . . .
The building contract alone would cost $1,280.8 By comparison, this sizable sum amounted to more than the annual salary of every pastor in the association put together!7 Somehow, they would have to increase giving from their mostly lower-class congregations by 55 percent to raise the funds.7
It probably seemed impossible on paper.
But at least one of them — Dr. M.L. West, a doctor and minister who lived in Travelers Rest — really believed they could do it:
“Oh, brethren, then let us, as we value the happiness of our dear children for life and for eternity, let us rise in our might . . . and let us establish and maintain a high school within our borders that will be a blessing to our children and a monument of glory to the North Greenville Association. . . . We can do this,” West urged with passion at that meeting on Oct. 14, 1891. “Have we the moral courage to go forward?”9
If they didn’t before, they certainly did after this moving speech; in fact, historians tend to credit West that the association took action so quickly.
At that same meeting, the association not only approved the proposal but also took the first few steps in developing the new institution. Benjamin Perry Robertson had, in fact, already created a draft of rules to govern the school. After he read those proposed rules, the association went ahead and appointed a committee of nine that would determine the location for the new school.10
Notably, Benjamin Franklin Neves donated the land for the original site, set on 10 acres in Tigerville, SC, and located about halfway between Glassy Mountain to the north and Paris Mountain to the south.11
By some miracle, everyday members of the association’s churches, as well as the surrounding community, stepped in to provide the needed funds and resources for the project to take shape.
“THE GRANDEST PLACE I’D EVER SEEN”
Within a year from that summer night when Ballenger first spoke up at the NGBA, the association had already erected a school building. All the pieces were coming together.
“The original building of three rooms stood on the knoll of the hill on the new campus, and the faculty consisted of Professor Hugh L. Brock (principal), Cancie Hill, and Pearl Power,” wrote historian Archie Vernon Huff, Jr.12
And on Jan. 16, 1893, North Greenville High School (NGHS) commenced its very first session. Ranging from kindergartners up through teenagers, the student body boasted a total 80 students.13 No doubt for most, that first day of school at NGHS was also their first time in a real classroom.
“The school had three rooms, two porches, a piano, and a bell,” remembered Dr. Jesse Bailey, honor graduate at the end of NGHS’ first year of classes. “I thought it was the grandest place I had ever seen, and it was.”14
Even then, the school’s patrons, its students, and the nearby community felt generally pleased with the new school in Tigerville. The “Greenville Daily News” deemed the high school “the finest institution of learning in the county outside the city of Greenville.”12, 15
LEARNING, GROWTH, AND SERVICE
From the start, NGHS emphasized academic learning, of course, but also personal growth.
Early classes at the high school included arithmetic, English, geography, Latin, music, and Bible.16 Students also had the opportunity to join the debate club. Later, the first organizations on campus consisted of mandatory literary societies that gave students practice in debate, speech, and essay writing.17
In addition to most classes, Principal Brock also led a weekly prayer meeting with the young boys of the school; many of them went on to profess faith in Christ as a result.13 Students at North Greenville also met together for Sunday school.18
One of the earliest organizations at North Greenville — and certainly the longest running — was the Baptist Young People’s Union, which focused on influencing NGHS students to become “morally and spiritually better.”19 Later, it became known as Baptist Student Union (BSU) and then, starting in 2017, Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM).
Some North Greenville students even worked at the 90-acre farm on campus in exchange for their schooling, providing food for the students, faculty, and staff of the school.20, 21 Others worked at the Neves or Wood Store to help pay for their school expenses.22
And for fun, everyone enjoyed the occasional corn shucking, play, or baseball game.23, 22
THESE IS CHANGING TIMES
Not only did NGHS provide students with a solid education, but it also prepared them for respectable careers (or the education they would need for them) and propelled them toward a life of Christian service.
What both local and national governments had failed to offer in the way of profitable alternatives to distilling, NGHS compensated for, at least for future generations of the communities in northern Greenville once known for bootlegging. The school offered the opportunity for their children to rise above their situation as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”9 through education, as West had hoped.
Most NGHS students did, in fact, finish high school and then go on to attend college. And many became teachers themselves in Greenville County. By the time North Greenville began raising funds for its first dormitory in 1902, in fact, around 22 percent of the whole student population helped teach in the summer schools.24 Remember: these were students who just years before had little to no formal education!
“We largely supply the public schools of our half of the county with teachers; having had twenty-five in our school this year,” noted an early catalog, adding: “In college or in business, our students succeed.”24
The student body had grown to 200 by 1903, and so the school soon set out to add a new two-story main building.25 The last class to meet in the original schoolhouse earned the nickname “The Class of Distinction” because all five of the graduates in this class went on to graduate from college, too.
All five of them also spent several years in the field of teaching after their time at North Greenville.26
NGHS graduates became teachers, pastors, and other respected professions, living their lives out in service to the community, the state, and beyond. Some of the high school’s earliest students even returned to North Greenville later in life, of course finding it much different than when they’d left.
One example is Dr. E. Buford Crain, a 1908 graduate of the high school.26 After Buford’s subsequent graduation from Furman University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, respectively, he became a pastor in Greenville, SC, and served for more than 12 years on the NGHS Board of Trustees. Eventually, he even returned to Tigerville proper, where he pastored the school’s neighboring Tigerville Baptist Church — founded by NGHS family27 — until his retirement.
Of the change he’d witnessed in the nearby community since his youth — when neighbors had stills and pistols as surely as they had eggs and potatoes — Buford said, “In overcoming the power of darkness, North Greenville has done more good than all the revenue officers and sheriffs combined for a hundred years.”14
And his brother, Dr. J. Dean Crain — a graduate who served as principal from 1910 to 1912, just before NGHS changed to an academy — predicted, “I can but feel that the school is just entering upon its career of usefulness, and that ere long what is known far and wide as the Dark Corner of South Carolina shall become famous for the light shed by the lives of its people.”28
Dean went on to become an evangelist, educator, and pastor.29
Who could have imagined that, over the next century or so, North Greenville would grow by leaps and bounds, impact thousands of students, and then send them out to shine the light of Christ — in Greenville, South Carolina, and every corner of the world?
1. Flynn, Jean Martin. “A History of North Greenville Junior College 1892-1967.” Page 6.
2. “Fourth Annual Session.” Page 5.
3. Flynn, Jean Martin. “A History of North Greenville Junior College 1892-1967.” Page 8.
4. Lockhart, Matthew A. “Dark Corner.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. May 17, 2016. Accessed October 5, 2017. http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/dark-corner/.
5. Blackwell, Joshua Beau. “Used to Be a Rough Place in Them Hills: Moonshine, the Dark Corner, and the New South.” Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2009. Page 96.
6. Morris, William C. “NGC: Lighthouse of ‘the Dark Corner’.” Greenville Piedmont, February 28, 1983.
7. “Minutes of the North Greenville Baptist Association.” 1891. Page 19.
8. “Minutes of the North Greenville Baptist Association.” 1892. Page 15.
9. “Minutes of the North Greenville Baptist Association.” 1891. Page 7.
10. “Minutes of the North Greenville Baptist Association.” 1891. Page 9.
11. Howard, Henry Jacob. “From These Roots: The Story of North Greenville Junior College, 1892-1967.” Page 17.
12. Huff, Archie Vernon. “Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont.” Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Page 220.
13. “Minutes of the North Greenville Baptist Association.” 1893. Page 13.
14. Huff, Archie Vernon. “Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont.” Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Page 221.
15. Flynn, Jean Martin. “A History of North Greenville Junior College 1892-1967.” Page 9.
16. “Catalog of NGHS.” 1901. Page number not provided.
17. Flynn, Jean Martin. “A History of North Greenville Junior College 1892-1967.” Page 12-13, 20.
18. “Announcement: North Greenville High School.” Session of 1907-08. Tigerville. Page number not provided.
19. “Announcement: North Greenville High School.” Session of 1907-08. Tigerville. Page 7.
20. Flynn, Jean Martin. “A History of North Greenville Junior College 1892-1967.” 64-65.
21. Howard, Henry Jacob. “From These Roots: The Story of North Greenville Junior College, 1892-1967.” Page 38.
22. Crain, J. Dean. “A Mountain Boy’s Life Story.” Greenville, SC: The Baptist Courier. 1914. Page 35.
23. Flynn, Jean Martin. “A History of North Greenville Junior College 1892-1967.” Page 65.
24. NGHS Catalog 1901-02. Page 3.
25. “Minutes of the North Greenville Baptist Association.” 1903. Page 11.
26. Howard, Henry Jacob. “From These Roots: The Story of North Greenville Junior College, 1892-1967.” Page 30.
27. Lockhart, Matthew A. “Dark Corner.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. May 17, 2016. Accessed October 5, 2017. http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/dark-corner/.
28. Crain, J. Dean. “A Mountain Boy’s Life Story.” Greenville, SC: The Baptist Courier. 1914. Page 65.
29. Howard, Henry Jacob. “From These Roots: The Story of North Greenville Junior College, 1892-1967.” Page 39.