Mary Catherine Canty, the woman who is credited with helping to save the Historic Myrtle Beach Colored School, died Tuesday night from complications after suffering a stroke. She was 81.
Canty, who suffered the stroke more than a week ago, had a living will asking that she not be resuscitated. She underwent surgery following the stroke but was not getting better, said family friend April Johnson.
Canty attended the Myrtle Beach Colored School, which was the first public school for black students in the Myrtle Beach area, beginning in 1939 when she was 6 years old. She worked with a group of former students for more than 20 years to ensure the school, which closed in 1953, was not destroyed.
“She was a powerful woman of God,” her daughter Mary “Cookie” Goings said. “Her spirit was so strong. ... And [though she was small] she was fierce. She had a presence and she had, what we called, the ‘look.’”
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Canty was born in 1933 in Myrtle Beach, growing up on Oak Street before moving to what is now known as Dennison Avenue in the Harlem neighborhood about 70 years ago. Dennison Avenue was named after Canty’s grandfather.
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.
Canty did not finish school as a child, but went back to take adult education classes at night at Myrtle Beach High School and received her high school diploma in 1970. Her second oldest child was in school during the day at the time, Goings said.
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 carried a newspaper clipping announcing Carver’s opening in her wallet.
In 1979 Canty and other former students approached 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 in 2013. “We wanted something, too, for our children – for everybody – to know, to see that they were treated justly.”
Canty and others worked with Diane Moskow-McKenzie, senior planner with Myrtle Beach, to help restore the colored school.
The building, which was beyond repair and “full of asbestos,” was demolished and a replica was built near the old location, Canty said. Moskow-McKenzie said Canty ensured that the building was disassembled and what could be preserved was saved.
“I cannot tell you how much that [school] meant to her,” Goings said. “It was very close to heart, and now it is to ours.”
Moskow-McKenzie said she first met in Canty in 1994.
“I knew from the moment I met her that she is a person that you would want to know better,” she said. “Mrs. Canty was a wonderful loving teacher and friend. She always had everyone’s best interest at heart. Knowing her was to love her.
“When I think of her today [Wednesday] I recall something that I heard long ago: ‘Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal,’” Moskow-McKenzie said. “There will be a huge void in this community now that Mrs. Canty is gone.”
Myrtle Beach City Council recognized Canty in 2013 with a proclamation declaring that Feb. 22 as Mary Canty Day and recognized her work to restore the colored school.
At the council meeting where she was honored, 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 then, 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.”
Goings has asked that there be no flowers sent in honor of her mother.
“Her request always – and she put it in writing – was that there be no flowers at the funeral,” Goings said.
Instead, Canty requested that donations be made to the Historic Myrtle Beach Colored School or to the Mount Olive AME Church stewardess board.
Arrangements are being handled by the Ocean View Funeral Home on Carver Street. Vieiwing and visitation will be 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, with memorial services at 1 p.m. Saturday. Both will be at Mt. Olive AME Church, 1108 Carver St.