A.J. Whittenberg Elementary unveils memorial plans in honor of namesake

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Elaine Whittenberg-Boyce looks at a painting of her father, A.J. Whittenberg. Photo/Ariel Gilreath

A large painting of Abraham Jonas Whittenberg — the namesake of A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering — will hang in one of the school’s hallways by a timeline of the school’s history.

Principal Susan Stevens painted and presented the portrait to Elaine Whittenberg-Boyce — daughter of A.J. Whittenberg — at a Black History Month program at the school Friday.

Students gathered in the cafeteria for the program where performer Jeremiah Dew — who goes by JDew — recited several of Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speeches. Stevens talked to students about the school’s history and namesake.

“We don’t always take enough time to reflect upon what he went through and who he was as a person to bring this building and this opportunity to students just like us,” Stevens said.

Principal Susan Stevens, left, painted a portrait of A.J. Whittenberg that will hang in a hallway of the A.J. Whittenberg School of Engineering. She presented the portrait to his daughter, Elaine Whittenberg-Boyce. Photo by Ariel Gilreath

A.J. Whittenberg caught national attention and changed the landscape of education in South Carolina when he, along with the NAACP, sued the Greenville County school district over integration in 1963. In 1964, his daughter, Elaine, was one of the first black students to attend the then-all-white Greenville Junior High School.

“It’s a very different situation being the name and the face [of integration],” Elaine Whittenberg-Boyce said.

Now, when Whittenberg-Boyce drives by A.J. Whittenberg Elementary, she smiles.

“I’m happy Greenville has sought to provide good education for our students,” she said.

The school also honored Mary Duckett, a longtime resident and advocate for the Southernside community in Greenville, as well as City Councilwoman Lillian Brock Flemming, with awards for their activism in the community.

Mary Duckett | Photo by Will Crooks

Duckett — who advocated for the district to open the A.J. Whittenberg school near the Southernside community — said she grew up admiring A.J. Whittenberg’s activism.

“When I was a young girl, he used to come through the community on voting day in a truck with a bullhorn encouraging people to get out and vote. I wasn’t old enough to vote, but we had to give out fliers,” Duckett said. “He was an advocate of the right things, and he was an advocate for the fact that everybody should have the same opportunity.”

Before the school opened in 2010, Duckett said a lot of people didn’t want the school in Greenville’s west side, a predominantly black community that’s struggled with the effects of gentrification in recent years.

“They knew that what they considered to be ‘the least of us’ would be attending the school,” Duckett said. “Isn’t that great that the school is here, and ‘the least of us’ have the opportunity to rise above poverty?”

Although Duckett would like to see the attendance zone of A.J. Whittenberg Elementary expanded to include more of the Southernside community, she’s proud of the school.

“I can’t explain what it meant to me, and means to me, that the school is here, and that these kids have an opportunity to go to one of the most prestigious schools in South Carolina, and for it to be in this neighborhood,” Duckett said.

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