Tucked away on the second floor of a historic building in Georgetown, S.C. is a story of a woman who had a plan — a plan to change lives.
I learned about this amazing woman during a visit to the Rice Museum housed at The Town Clock, a part of the Old Market Building. As I perused the wall photos and read the chronicle of Mrs. Ruby Forsythe’s life, I became increasingly impressed with this educator’s mission to teach respect and a “can do” attitude.
Miss Ruby, as she was known to her students, saw the potential in her charges who had parents often working long hours to scrape out a living on the land. In the one-room schoolhouse on Pawley Island — the only educational facility available for the area's African American children — she preached a philosophy that would serve them well in the future.
She told them to never say "I can't" — at least try.
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She applied that school of thought early on in her own life. Unique to her gender, race and era, Ruby graduated with a bachelor of science from South Carolina State College and began her teaching career in 1924. She taught in North Charleston schools for more than a decade, then she eventually joined her husband, an Episcopal priest and headmaster at the Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Church and School on the island.
In Miss Ruby’s class, it was all about good behavior and doing your best.
“You got to start with little things that aren’t in the book to teach respect,” the wise teacher’s words leaped from the printed page as I read. “The schoolteacher today has to be mother, father, counselor, everything.”
Like a parent who expects kids to mind the rules, those who broke them faced consequences. If a student used foul language, they were given a mix of peroxide, Listerine and water followed by a minute to let their misdeed fill their thoughts — and mouth — before spitting the bubbly liquid out.
Just the sight of the mysterious bottle on her school desk became a strong deterrent to future wrongdoing.
Miss Ruby was strict, to be sure, but she loved her students and they returned that love by adhering to her instruction beyond the schoolhouse doors. Some returned as adults with their own children, hoping to enroll them in her class. Through the years she followed her students’ progress and faithfully attended the school’s graduation ceremonies beyond retirement and until her death in 1992.
Since returning from a trip to South Carolina, I’ve been thinking about this amazing woman who was awarded four honorary doctorates during her lifetime. Yet to me, her legacy and achievement was unknown. That’s why during Women’s History Month this story needed to be revisited.
And even though this year’s theme is “Women with a plan: architects, town planners and landscape architects," I’d like to believe Miss Ruby Forsythe was an architect of sorts; an educator who was about the business of building character and determination in young lives.