Beaufort Suffragist Shared Gullah Folklore and Educated Black Children

Sep 1, 2020

Anne Christensen Pollitzer lives at the end of a dirt road on Saint Helena Island.  The view from her back porch is as stunning as her story.

White egrets wade along the marsh as Anne unfolds two large, cardboard displays beside her, spreading them out like wings.  Each is filled with old photographs.

Anne Christensen Pollitzer of Beaufort is the great-great granddaughter of Abbie Holmes Christensen; a suffragist, folklorist and educator.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

The retired schoolteacher is prepared to talk about her great-great grandmother Abbie Holmes Christensen, a celebrated suffragist, folklorist and educator.

"She was legendary in the family," says Pollitzer.  "She was a little, tiny woman, less than five feet tall."

Abbie was 12 years-old when her family arrived in Beaufort from Massachusetts in 1864, just before the end of the Civil War.  Her parents were abolitionists who wanted to help freed slaves acquire land and an education.

As a teenager, Abbie taught black children how to read.  But she too was learning about West African Gullah culture.

"She started writing down the Gullah stories they had to tell because she thought they were so funny and clever," Pollitzer says.

Abbie later published those stories in the book "Afro-American Folke Lore as Told 'Round Cabin Fires on the Sea Islands of South Carolina" after returning from college in Massachusetts.  She used the money she made to build a boarding and day school for black children in Beaufort.  The Port Royal Agricultural and Industrial School taught more than reading, writing and arithmetic.  It taught life skills like sewing, cooking and farming.

"The school produced so much cotton and so many vegetables that they helped to pay for the school," says Pollitzer.  "The students paid $7 a month and that was a heavy duty for a lot of them."

Anne says Abbie ran the school until 1920 when she sold it to the county for $1.  By then, Abbie had married and raised six children. One died at the age of five.

She had become interested in the issues of temperance and suffrage and was a founding member of the South Carolina Equal Rights Association.  Her son Niels served as a long-time state senator who tried to ratify the 19th amendment.

Abbie was also one of the first educators in the nation to found a Montessori school.  She ran it from her Beaufort home.

"His smile was like I gave him his citizenship back in the country." - Anne Christensen Pollitzer on telling a man he had the right to vote

"Oh yeah, I relate to her," Pollitzer says.  "She raised five children.  I raised four. You know, she started a school and so did I."

Yet, Anne didn't really know much about Abbie until her father was dying and he began sharing stories about his beloved grandmother.  She was struck by their common commitment to education and suffrage.

Anne Pollitzer founded the Eleanor Christensen Montessori and Grade School after returning from work with the Peace Corp. It's named after her mother who as also a teacher.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

Anne taught English overseas in the Peace Corps.  When she returned to Beaufort, she found public schools lacking.  So, she started the first private school for both black and white students, the E.C. Montessori and Grade School in Beaufort.

As for suffrage, Anne's last name is Pollitzer.  She just happened to marry a man related to the famed Pollitzer sisters who also fought for voting rights for women.

"All these years later," laughs Pollitzer.  "Both of our families go way back."

Now 80 years-old, Anne goes door to door with her granddaughters encouraging people to vote.  She remembers a black man who would barely open his front door.  He said he couldn't vote because he's a convicted felon.

"Well, I said, 'have you served your time?'", says Pollitzer.  "He says 'yes'.  'Are you on parole?' 'No mam.'  I said you can vote but you have to register."

It's a moment Anne will never forget.

"His smile was like I gave him his citizenship back in the country and the girls got to see that."

It was a teaching moment, a lesson shared about the power of education and the right to vote.