Columbia City of Women Honoree
Celia Dial Saxon
Image courtesy of the Richard Samuel Roberts Collection, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
On May 31, 1877, Celia Emma Dial and seven other African American women graduated from the South Carolina State Normal School. Established by an act of the General Assembly of South Carolina on February 26, 1873, the State Normal School was chartered “for the training and educating of teachers in the art of instructing and governing in the public schools of this State, which shall be open to all persons who may wish to become teachers.” In the fall, she began a teaching career that would span 57 years and make her the most celebrated educator, black or white, in Columbia.
Celia Emma Dial was born in Columbia, South Carolina on October 1, 1857. Prior to emancipation, she was enslaved by a “Mr. McCullouck” just a block to the west of the South Carolina College campus, known today as the Horseshoe at the University of South Carolina. While living with her grandparents, Jane and Cambridge Ballard, a carpenter who purportedly worked on the South Carolina State House, Dial attended Howard School, established in 1865 by the Freedmen’s Bureau to educate newly freed African American children. After the establishment of the South Carolina State Normal School, its board of regents leased Rutledge College at the reorganized University of South Carolina. Earlier that year, the university had reopened as the first fully integrated, state-supported institution in the South, although it still only enrolled men. The State Normal School, which opened its doors on September 1, 1874, brought African American women to the college’s grounds in an educational capacity for the first time. The school lasted three short years and like the university was closed following the installation of Wade Hampton III as governor of South Carolina. Dial and seven other women graduated that May of 1877 in a ceremony held in the Rutledge College chapel.
"The education given us was a strictly normal one, suited to that which girls of approximately ten years’ preliminary schooling (such as we had had) were capable of taking in. On graduation we received our certificates from the chapel platform."
— Celia Dial Saxon, August 16, 1931
Dial accepted a teaching position at Howard School in November 1877, beginning a career that continued until her death in 1935. In 1890, she married Thomas A. Saxon, a professor at Allen University, and together they had two daughters, Mary Ray and Julia Saxon. She taught middle and high school students geography, history, and civics. By 1920, she had joined the faculty of Booker T. Washington School, which opened in 1916. Under her direction, students at Booker T. Washington staged a “pageant of progress” in 1928 documenting black life from “emancipation until the present time.”
Saxon’s teaching extended beyond Columbia’s secondary school. Each summer, she taught history and geography in a summer institute, held first at Benedict College and then the South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. The institute, often several weeks long, was available to African Americans of most ages and abilities, including “teachers who wish to increase their professional skill, school principals, supervisors, graduate students, undergraduate students, properly recommended high school graduates who are about to enter upon college courses, housewives, social workers, and students of public health.” She also served as the longtime treasurer of the Palmetto State Teachers’ Association, a group that organized around making segregated schools as equitable as possible, in terms of facilities, teacher quality and pay, and term lengths.
Saxon was also active in Columbia’s civic life. In 1909, she co-founded the South Carolina Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, a group that in turn established the Fairwold Home for Delinquent Girls in 1917. That institution, located about ten miles north of the city, housed “wayward” African American girls who were mostly orphaned and taught them “several industries, among them cooking, laundrying [sic], sewing and gardening.” She was also instrumental in the founding of the Wilkinson Orphanage for Negro Children.
Saxon later served as the African American chairwoman of the interracial committee for the Phyllis Wheatley branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In 1926, the committee purchased 1429 Park Street, and in June 1930 the Columbia Public Library, led by Lucy Hampton, agreed to loan 1,000 books, effectively establishing the city’s first library branch available to black patrons at the site. The Phyllis Wheatley branch of the Columbia Public Library officially opened August 2, 1930.
On September 12, 1930, Saxon received the “highest honor the city school board can confer on a teacher,” with the renaming of the formerly all-white Blossom Street Elementary School in her honor. The Celia D. Saxon Elementary School opened as an all-black institution and remained so until its closure in 1968.
"The Lord has allowed me to make another semester."
— Celia Dial Saxon, January 28, 1935
Celia Dial Saxon died January 29, 1935 at her home at 1216 Page Street in the Waverly neighborhood. The previous day, like most in her life, she taught classes and graded papers. Prior to Saxon’s funeral, held January 31, her body was laid in state at Booker T. Washington School so that former students, friends, and fellow citizens could pay their respects.
"No other woman in Columbia has given as much of her time, strength and ability for the good of her people as did this dear Mother…The protection of girls, and boys too, was ever on her heart and she with others worked ceaselessly to accomplish this aim."
— The Palmetto Leader, February 2, 1935
Despite the social, political, and economic constraints of the Jim Crow era, Saxon was able to excel professionally and provide a bevy of educational, cultural, and financial resources for African Americans in South Carolina, and her memory has lived on through her students and the city’s broader community in the decades since her death. In 1952, the Columbia Housing Authority named a planned four-million-dollar segregated public housing project in her honor. At the 1954 dedication ceremony, an interracial cadre of city and state leaders came together to mark the momentous occasion. In addition, Saxon’s two daughters, Mary Ray Saxon Jackson and Julia Saxon Woodbury, unveiled the large bronze plaque at the housing site. Although Saxon Homes no longer stands, the Columbia Housing Authority renamed the new affordable housing neighborhood and one of its streets in her honor. In 2008, a South Carolina Historical Marker was placed at the corner of Blossom and Assembly streets commemorating her life and the school which once bore her name.
Want to learn more about Celia Dial Saxon? Connect with a historian at Historic Columbia.
Interested in promoting leadership and civic engagement? Check out WREN’s Civic Leadership Seminar on April 3rd.
Built in 1916 as Blossom Street School, an elementary school for white children, this building was dedicated in honor of educator and philanthropist Celia Dial Saxon in 1930, just one year after it became an elementary school for black children. The school closed in 1968, and UofSC demolished it in 1974.