When Mary Canty began her education at the Myrtle Beach Colored School in 1939 at age 6, she never knew her dedication to the memory of that building would earn her a proclamation from the city.
The City Council declared Friday to be Mary Canty Day, coinciding with the third annual Black History Month celebration at the school she helped preserve and restore.
“I had mixed emotions,” Canty, 79, said of being recognized with her own day. “I was saying to myself, ‘Somebody else should be getting this award.’ ... Whatever I did, there was someone there with me. I thought maybe they could be recognized.”
At the Feb. 12 council meeting, Councilman Wayne Gray presented Canty with the proclamation.
Never miss a local story.
“Throughout her life, Mary Canty never let adversity deter her as she raised her children, advocated for her community and advanced her education and career, even going back to school as an adult to earn her high school diploma,” Gray read from the proclamation.
At the meeting, Canty told council it was a heartwarming, moving experience.
“It reminds me of a song that a group called The Consolers used to sing,” she said, reciting lyrics from the gospel song “Give Me My Flowers.”
In the song the singers ask to be remembered by being given flowers and told kind words while they are still living instead of in their memory so they are able to appreciate them.
“Today, you have done just that,” Canty said. “Given me my flowers and kind words for me to hear. If I had a million – a trillion dollars, I could not pay for this moment in time.”
Canty was born in Myrtle Beach, growing up on Oak Street before moving to what is now known as Dennison Avenue in the Harlem neighborhood nearly 70 years ago.
When she was 6 she began attending Myrtle Beach Colored School, which was the first public school for black students in the Myrtle Beach area. It opened the year before she was born.
She attended the Colored School until eighth grade before going to Whittemore High School in Conway. While Canty only attended segregated schools, her oldest daughter Martha was one of the four black children to integrate Myrtle Beach Middle School in 1965.
“[White students] would put hot glue in her chair or thumb tacks,” Canty said. “She sat on the hot glue once before she learned to look in the chair before she sat down.”
The Colored School closed in 1953 and served as a warehouse before sitting unused for many years. That same year, the Carver Training School, another school for black children, opened on Dunbar Street. She still carries a newspaper clipping announcing Carver’s opening in her wallet.
“Sometimes people ask me about what things were like and I can show them this,” she said.
In 1979 Canty and other former students approached the City Council for help to save the school. They continued to work for more than 20 years before they learned in 2001 that the school was in the path of plans to widen what is now known as Mr. Joe White Avenue.
“We wanted something that was us, that represented us,” she said. “We wanted something, too, for our children – for everybody – to know, to see that they were treated justly.”
The building, which was beyond repair and “full of asbestos,” was demolished and a replica was built near the old location, Canty said.
April Johnson, a senior office assistant with the Myrtle Beach Planning Department, said she met Canty in 2001 when the city formed a committee to work to save the building.
“All she wanted was for the school to be resurrected,” Johnson said, who referred to Canty as her mentor. “She’s full of kind words and encouragement. I’ve never known her to speak a negative word in my 12 years of knowing her.”
Johnson said when she drove Canty home after the council meeting last week, Canty told her she would never forget the day.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Thank you, you are like my daughter,’” Johnson said. “Oh, my God. Those are words that will always remain with me.”