Adult Students from Wil Lou Gray Opportunity Schools, ca. 1920s

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Dr. Wil Lou Gray was a pioneer in adult education.  She began her career as a teacher in Greenwood and Laurens counties, but soon became interested in adult education and literacy and founded the first night school in South Carolina in 1914.  Dr. Gray’s work moved beyond the county level.  She first served as Executive Secretary for the South Carolina Illiteracy Commission in 1918 and then moved to the State Supervisor of Night Schools, later named Adult Education Supervisor, beginning in 1919, where she founded the Opportunity School for illiterate adults.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Dr. Gray became well known as she increased educational opportunities for rural agricultural and mill families, both black and white, through programs like the “Write Your Name Campaign.”  These two undated photographs are probably from the early Opportunity School, which did not have a fixed location for the first twenty-five years but traveled from college to college in the summers.  The first image shows “Five Adult Women in the Classroom,” with captions reading, “I lived in the country,” “There were no fall school and I could not go,” “I went to work in the mill when I was 11 years old,” and “My father would not send me.  There was no School Compulsory Law.”  This photograph, combined with the second photograph of three adults learning writing on a chalkboard outside, illustrates some of the people Dr. Gray helped with her literacy programs.  Dr. Gray, like other women in South Carolina, used progressive issues like literacy and sanitation to become involved in larger issues before and after World War I.


“Five Adult Women in Classroom.” Photograph.  Wil Lou Gray Papers. (482)  South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.

“Students with Sign ‘I can read. I can write. I am happy.’” Photograph.  Wil Lou Gray Papers. (503)  South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina.

Correlating SC Social Studies Academic Standards:

Standard 8-6: The student will demonstrate an understanding of South Carolina’s development during the early twentieth century.

Indicator 8-6.1 Summarize the progressive reform movement in South Carolina, including the motivation of progressives; child labor laws; Prohibition; improvements to roads, hospitals, and libraries; tax reforms; changes to local government systems; and the roles of significant state governors and women’s groups.

Indicator 8-6.3 Summarize the political, social, and economic situation in South Carolina following World War I, including progress in suffrage for women, improvements in daily life in urban and rural areas, and changes in agriculture and industry.

Standard USHC-7: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the economic boom-and-bust in America in the 1920s and 1930s, its resultant political instability, and the subsequent worldwide response.

Indicator USHC-7.3 Explain the causes and effects of the social conflict and change that took place during the 1920s, including the role of women and their attainment of the right to vote, the “Red Scare” and the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, immigration quotas, Prohibition, and the Scopes trial.


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Five Adult Women in Classroom
I Can Read





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