On this episode of Profile, South Carolina ETV's longstanding interview series, we meet a woman known as the "First Lady of Education" in South Carolina. Dr. Wil Lou Gray founded the South Carolina Opportunity School in 1931. Dr. Gray sits down for an interview with host Tom Fowler and guest June Licata. At the time of this interview, Dr. Gray was ninety years old. Born in 1883 in Laurens County, Dr. Gray would grow into South Carolina's fiercest advocate against illiteracy.
"The life of Wil Lou Gray is proof that one life can make a big difference in society." - Tom Fowler
In 1918, the Columbia College alumnus was appointed to the Second State Illiteracy Commission as field secretary. In this role she traveled the state, setting up adult schools. To provide a solution for the many adults who could not read, Dr. Gray began to dream about opening an all-day school for adults. She started with a summer boarding school for women located near Walhalla. The following summer, her "Opportunity School" was held at Lander College for women over sixteen. The demand grew to include men, too. In response, Dr. Gray established the Men's Opportunity School at Erskine College in August 1923. While Dr. Gray founded the South Carolina Opportunity School in 1931, it still would be a struggle to find a permanent location for many years.
In 1946, the General Assembly appropriated $65,000 for a permanent school in an abandoned army hospital near the present Columbia Metropolitan Airport. It took about a quarter-century, for Dr. Gray to win her fight for a permanent home and year-round session for the Opportunity School, instead of the brief summer terms that lasted only four weeks. There were 213 students in attendance at that first permanent Opportunity School, and after the first year, an average of over 30 students a year received a high school diploma.
Dr. Gray continued her fight against illiteracy even after she officially retired in 1957 as the Director of the School.
- Dr. Wil Lou Gray not only worked to establish the S.C. Opportunity School but also led a group of individuals to form the South Carolina Commission on Aging in the 1950s.
- She was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 1974.
For more women's history content, check out the Women's History Month page. Visit the digital series, ETV Classics, to watch more gems from South Carolina ETV's vault.