Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
GRACIOUS LADY IN THE THICK OF THE FRAY
Mary Elizabeth Frayser was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1868. As a young adult, she became a teacher and helped to create Virginia’s first organization of teachers. She was an early advocate for educational improvements, including better pay for teachers. At the age of 40, Mary went to Columbia University in New York, graduating in 1911 with a degree in home economics.
Mary came to Rock Hill in 1912 as the first home extension agent for Winthrop College. She worked to improve the lives of poor families in mill villages and rural communities throughout South Carolina. She left Rock Hill in 1917 when funding for the program ended, but returned in 1922, continuing her support for mill and farm families as a representative of the Clemson College Experimental Research Station and a teacher of Sociology at Winthrop.
“If a thing is right, do it and leave the outcome to providence.”
Over her long life, Mary Frayser was an advocate for a wide range of social issues ranging from women’s rights, racial inequality, care for the mentally ill, children’s health, civic improvement, workplace representation, and public library services. She was a staunch backer of voting rights for women, first in Virginia and later in South Carolina, at a time when there was little support for the cause in the South. She was also was a champion for poverty-stricken textile mill workers and rural tenant farmers. She worked tirelessly to improve their living conditions, health, education and recreation opportunities, often by securing the respect and cooperation of the mill owners. Mary’s advocacy for African American citizens shocked her friends and associates. She became a leader of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, which actively worked to stop lynchings and advocated for improved education. Mary was a trailblazer in the creation of South Carolina’s public library system. Working through women’s organizations around the state, Mary led the effort that established public libraries in South Carolina in 1929. From 1943 to 1950, she served as the chair of the State Library Board, the only woman to chair a state appointed board at the time. In this role, she persuaded the General Assembly to provide the first state funding for a public library system. Mary also served as a member or officer in almost every women’s organization in South Carolina, which was often the key to her ability to achieve progressive change.
One of the amazing aspects of this remarkable woman’s life is the grace with which she pursued her ambitious goals. A biographer wrote: “She had an uncanny ability to get others interested in and committed to work toward the improvement of others.” Another stated: “Her method of securing the cooperation of reluctant southerners was always one of persuasion and education.” Mary’s life is a demonstration that one need not become angry or divisive in order to accomplish extraordinary social change.
Mary’s long, productive life ended in 1968, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday. Until the end of her days, she stood for what she believed was right. She wrote: “If a thing is right, do it and leave the outcome to providence.” These humble words are an appropriate summation of her life. Mary Elizabeth Frayser was a beacon of hope for those seeking a better life in South Carolina, her adopted home.