Brainerd Institute in Chester, South Carolina was the first and only school in the county for freed slaves and their children and was one of the largest and oldest institutions for Black students in the United States. It closed in 1939 and was up for sale. Actress Phylicia Rashad, daughter of a Brainerd’s alumni, purchased what remained of Brainerd Institute- Kulmer Hall.
Brainerd Institute started in 1866 as a school for freedman and was later named when Rev. Samuel Loomis established churches and schools among blacks near Chester on the Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church’s order. Started as an elementary school, Brainerd soon expanded to ten grades by 1913 and was a four-year-high-school in the 1930s. When high school admission began to decline, it became Brainerd Junior College.
Public education later expanded in South Carolina, so opportunities for black student admission increased. The shift convinced the Presbyterian Church that Brainerd was no longer a necessity to the community. Reduction of entries and limited funds forced Brainerd to close in 1939.
With only Kulmer Hall as the only remaining building in the state, the property was up for sale. In the late 1990s, a local group was interested in preserving the school. Actress Phylicia Rashad and her sister, dancer Debbie Allen answered the call for support. They bought the only remaining building left of Brainerd in honor of their mother, Vivian Ayers Allen.
Not only Ayers Allen is an alumna of Brainerd’s final graduating class of 1939, but both of her parents were from Brainerd Institute as well. Allen grew up across the street from the school. On numerous occasions, she would bring her daughters to her childhood neighborhood, where they would spend their evenings dancing on the campus grounds. It’s no doubt why Brainerd Institute is very close to the family’s heart.
When Ayers Allen learned that her Alma Mater was on sale and could be redeveloped into apartment complexes, she felt like “someone has to do something.” And so her daughters, Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen bought the remaining Kumler Hall and had both hosted fundraising events for the restoration of the hall.
While Kumler Hall is currently under reconstruction, Ayers Allen and her daughters are using the campus’ green spaces for the Open Field Program. The program was first launched in Houston until it was brought to Brainerd. It started in 2017 as the first summer literacy workshop, held on the school’s fields and will continue in summer 2018. The program allows preschoolers to explore its interactive curriculum. Moreover, it offers lessons, workshops, and guest speakers that make students feel more like they are at camp than at school.
Ayers Allen and her daughters are committed to restoring Chester’s tradition of providing education to those in need. The three women will continue to restore Kumler Hall so someday, the Open Fields will become a year-long program that preserves and shares Brainerd Institute’s academic, artistic, and cultural contributions within the community.