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Rev. Dr. A.Toomer Porter

When the Reverend Dr. Anthony Toomer Porter visited his son’s grave at Magnolia Cemetery on October 25, 1867, I doubt he could have had any inkling of the school that stands here on the bank of the Ashley River nearly 150 years later as Porter-Gaud School.  While remembering his son who had died of yellow fever during the Civil War, a war Charleston was still reeling from, Dr. Porter later recounted that he heard a voice say, “Stop grieving for the dead, and do something for the living.” By December 1867 that “something” was forming the Holy Communion Church Institute, which was attached to his church. For fifty cents a month, or for whatever farm produce a student could muster, the children of Charleston could attend Porter’s school and enjoy an academic, moral, and spiritual education. In 1874 the school was renamed the Porter Military Academy and soon moved onto the grounds of a former Federal Arsenal. In 1964, the school moved to its present location, merged with the Gaud School and Watt School, and became Porter-Gaud School.

The Civil War wreaked havoc on Charleston. While it was not burned like Atlanta, Charleston did endure bombardment by the United States artillery and was occupied during the Reconstruction Era. Porter raised funds for his school not only in Charleston, but also up and down the East Coast, including from Hamilton Fish, Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary of state. When U.S. troops left Charleston at the end of Reconstruction in 1879, Dr. Porter sought to build a campus at the armory across from Holy Communion Church. This land would better suit his growing school. History is replete with ironies and coincidences. Dr. Porter sought approval from William Sherman, then serving as commander of the U.S. Army, and from Republican President Rutherford Hayes. Eventually, Dr. Porter secured the land from Congress for one dollar a year. He transformed old barracks into classrooms and an old artillery shed into a new chapel named after St. Timothy. It still stands on the grounds of the Medical University of South Carolina as St. Luke’s Chapel.

With its move onto old arsenal grounds, the school continued its transformation into a military school. Boarders participated in daily reveille  and a daily Episcopal chapel service, while studying a wide variety of subjects. PMA offered classical Greek as well as woodworking and military science. The school also organized one of the first football teams in South Carolina, winning a number of early championships. Today, Porter-Gaud’s wide-ranging curriculum includes classes from Computer Science to Philosophy, languages from Latin to Mandarin. Porter-Gaud’s athletic accomplishments have only increased since the school became co-ed in the 1970s. Recently, our Girls Volleyball team has won six straight state titles. 

The spiritual side of Porter-Gaud is rooted in Porter’s development of WATCH: Words, Actions, Thoughts, Character, and Habits. Dr. Porter drew upon  2nd Epistle to Timothy, chapter 4, verse 5, which in the King James version reads "But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry." This formed the basis of the Honor Code that still exists in the form of a student-led Honor Council. In the Episcopal tradition, all iterations of Dr. Porter’s school have welcomed a diversity of faith. Back in the 1870s, Porter worked with a Jewish businessman, Saul Wyman, to help raise funds for the school – and in fact, Charleston is the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States. In a meeting with Catholic businessmen, Porter said flatly that he was using the Book of Common Prayer. The men replied that as long as all faiths were indeed welcome at Porter’s school then there was no issue. Today, Porter-Gaud boasts a well-attended Jewish Life program where Jewish faculty, staff, and students meet to enhance their spirituality while Episcopal chapel services are held for Christian students. And a lifelong Catholic is even addressing you now.

Dr. Porter died on March 30, 1902, leaving the school to a new generation of leaders. In the midst of World War I, PMA established a newspaper, Porter Grits, literary magazine WATCH and a yearbook, the Polygon, all of which are still in press today. Four hundred and fifty PMA cadets served in World War I.[2] The school saw struggles in the inter-war period, when the cotton crop declined by 40 percent. But it began to prosper again during the Second World War, and PMA graduates were considered prime candidates for the US Army. Faculty wore military dress. Students, both day and boarder, drilled frequently. While no longer a military academy, Porter-Gaud has sent a number of graduates to West Point and the Naval Academy, as well as enrollment in ROTC programs. The end of the war saw ups and downs in enrollment, and new ideas about how to keep the Porter legacy alive led to the creation of the Porter-Gaud we have today.

The 1960s were a turbulent time nationwide, but a merger would create a sense of stability in the Charleston education world. Also on the Peninsula, The Gaud School for Boys was founded by Dr. William Steen Gaud in 1908 and had a stellar academic reputation. Berkeley Grimball, who was Head of School at The Gaud School in the 1960s, was asked by the PMA trustees to merge his school with PMA and the Watt School on the banks of the Ashley River. In 1964 the Seaboard Atlantic Coastline Railroad offered to gift the property to the new Porter-Gaud. The old PMA property was sold to the Medical University of South Carolina. While Porter and Gaud students had once been rivals, through sports and other extracurricular activities the students came together as one.

As the city of Charleston and the nation dealt with dramatic changes at home with the Civil Rights movement, Grimball and the Board decided in 1967 that PG should integrate by admitting black students. One hundred years after Dr. Porter opened his school, PG integrated without major incident. In 1972, girls were first admitted into the Lower School and then in 1975 directly into the Upper School.

Mr. Ben Hutto

The new Porter-Gaud developed a reputation as a center for arts and music. Then-music director Ben Hutto, later Director of Performing Arts of St. Albans School and National Cathedral School, established a tradition of Lessons and Carols modeled after that of King’s College, Cambridge. A Founders Day Concert is held each year, as is a Christmas celebration that gathers all 12 grades together to, among other things, belt out the 12 Days of Christmas…loudly, with the 5th grade getting the honor of belting out FIVE GOLDEN RINGS.

We are also proud that service to the community occupies a great deal of our students’ time. This is a component of their character development that is not mandatory, but is very much valued and embedded in the school’s culture. The merger with the O’Quinn School means that the spirit of Dr. Porter now extends from Pre-K to the 12th grade.

Porter-Gaud School has grown a great deal from those first few buildings on the bank of the Ashley River, and we now envision a new master plan that includes a new Fine Arts building and St. Timothy’s Chapel, modeled on the original from the old arsenal property. 

A History of Porter-Gaud School
Presented by Thomas D. Westerman, Ph.D., 20 April 2017 for the Board of the National Association of Episcopal Schools


[1] Much of this material is drawn from the writing of previous school archivists, Mr. Ralph Nordlund and Dr. Thomas Horton. See Dr. Westerman for the original material.

[2] Karen Green, Porter-Gaud School: The Next Step (Easley: Southern Historical Press, 1982), 44.

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