Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
William Mason Chisolm was an educator, philanthropist, musician, poet and businessman who devoted his life to the betterment of African Americans in York County.
One of 11 children, Chisolm earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Drake University in 1929. He reportedly pursued post-graduate studies in the U.S. and abroad but returned home determined to give less fortunate youths an opportunity to succeed.
Within a few years, he acquired six acres near the present intersection of Saluda Road and S.C. 901 and built several buildings to house a training school inspired by the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. One of the buildings was a rambling, multi-story structure that Chisolm reportedly built with his own hands from a design he obtained in France. The building remained a neighborhood landmark until it was torn down in the 1960s.
Chisolm, who never married nor had children, believed that Blacks would never break the chains of poverty without marketable skills. His original goal was to train girls as domestics. While many middle-class White families employed Black women as low-paid servants, Chisolm believed that if girls were trained in sewing and other domestic skills, they could land better paying jobs up North. He later expanded his vision to include training young men in plumbing and other trades.
Although the number of students at Durkee Institute (named after a benefactor) and the curriculum are lost to history, there is no doubt that Chisolm made a positive impact.
At the time, formal education for many rural African American children ended at Grade 7 because the state didn’t provide school buses for Black children and their families couldn’t afford to drive them into Rock Hill to attend high school. Chisolm purchased used buses to bring children to Emmett Scott and other schools. Families were charged a nominal sum, which Chisolm would waive if they had no money.
Chisolm’s benevolence was not limited to education. He laid a waterline down Crawford Road so that neighbors could enjoy safe drinking water. He built a pond and a baseball field on his property where people could enjoy their precious leisure time. He claimed that his school featured the first playground constructed for Black children in South Carolina.
A talented musician, vocalist and published poet, Chisolm established the Clee Club, which hosted lectures, poetry readings, recitals and dances, in a hall named for his mother, Fannie Chisolm.
Anecdotal accounts of his generosity abound. Stories are told about how he helped pay for college tuition or raise money for churches. Upon learning a neighbor couldn’t afford a formal wedding, Chisolm arranged and paid for a wedding reception.
More astonishing is that Chisolm apparently funded these activities with proceeds from lectures and performances he delivered across the U.S. – from New York City to California -- over several decades. Dozens of newspaper articles describe how he would sing spirituals or recite poetry before speaking about challenges facing Blacks in the South. A collection inevitably followed, often for such specific items as sewing machines.
Tragically, William Mason Chisolm’s life was cut short at age 50 when a mentally ill man shot him in his store on Crawford Road. He did not live to see the fruits of the modern civil rights movement.