Sterling High School statue in Greenville, SC

“Raise High the Torch of Sterling!” | Photo from Greenville Journal

If you’ve lived in Greenville for any amount of time, you’ve probably walked by this statue on the corner of Main + Washington Streets downtown.

You’ve probably passed it on your way to grab a bite downtown or on your morning walk with your dog, but if you don’t know the history of this statue, keep reading. Today we’re going to tell you all about Sterling High School, the first Black high school in Greenville

Way back in the 1890’s, Reverend Daniel Melton Minus made it his goal to provide local Black children with a high school. He led an educational committee, secured the funding and permits from the state, and in 1896, opened Greenville Academy in a room at Silver Hill Church, where he was the pastor. Enrollment increased quickly, so a bigger space was needed. After using the church for several years, Minus called upon some of Greenville’s wealthiest white businessmen for financial + organizational support. Thomas Parker, a white aristocrat from Charleston, gave a donation of $2,500 to build the school.

The school ran successfully for several years but closed for a period of time before becoming Enoree High School until 1929. Greenville County then bought the building + renamed it Sterling High School. Sterling was successful for many years as a haven for cultivating + nurturing the minds of young Black students

In 1967, the school burned down and on November 19, 2006, hundreds attended the dedication of the bronze statue on the corner of Main + Washington Streets to commemorate the school’s legacy. The statue is of two Black students walking proudly down the school steps. The boy has an “S” on his sweater, while the little girl carries her schoolbooks.

The statue was made by sculptor Mariah Kirby-Smith. The school’s oldest living teacher at the time was Wilfred Walker and at 94 years old, he laid a symbolic brick in the wall.

The location of the statue was chosen because of its proximity to Woolworth’s Lunch Counter. In the 1960’s, Sterling-ites would gather at the Woolworth’s lunch counter for peaceful sit-ins, mirroring the sit-ins happening across the South during the civil right’s movement, helping lead the charge to integration in Greenville.

Although the school no longer stands, many prominent figures were taught at Sterling High School.

Five Sterling High School alumni.

Jesse Jackson: Perhaps the most famous Sterling graduate, Reverend Jesse Jackson was a Sterling-ite and the school’s star quarterback, which earned him a football scholarship to University of Illinois. He became a civil rights activist + left school to join Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama, where Jackson led several civil + economic rights movements and organizations.

Ruth Ann Butler: In 1985, Butler visited the African-American museum in Tennessee + was inspired to begin the preservation of Black history in Greenville. She later quit her teaching career to open the Greenville Cultural Exchange Center.

Joseph Allen Vaughn: Vaughn was the Sterling student body president + later attended Furman University as the first Black undergrad post desegregation in 1965. He organized many civil rights marches in downtown Greenville.

Ralph Anderson: Anderson worked at the United States Postal Service for 31 years, serving as the postmaster in Clemson + Greer for some time. He didn’t run for Greenville City Council until he was 55 years old, but then served in the role from 1983-1991 and later in the state House of Representatives for six years and the state Senate for 17 years.

Lillian Brock Flemming: Flemming graduated Sterling High School with honors before attending Furman University. In 2017, she retired from Greenville County Schools after 46 years of service. She is a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of South Carolina + the Greenville branch of the NAACP and has served on Greenville’s City Council since 1981.