The Rev. Alexander Bettis impacted the lives of thousands of people during the 19th century, in which he had been born a slave.

But his later work in promoting education and strong faith remains vital into the 21st century, the Rev. George L. Brightharp told students at a Black History Ceremony at Leavelle McCampbell Middle School Friday. He benefitted from Bettis’ accomplishments.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, three years later Bettis opened the Mt. Canaan Baptist Church, down S.C. Highway 25 in Edgefield County. Brightharp has served as the pastor there for well over 30 years, and Mt. Canaan is just one of the churches Bettis started.

Bettis is best known for opening Bettis Academy in 1881 – a school that would eventually include not only K-12, but a two-year college. The school also flourished under the leadership of a man named Alfred Nicholson. Bettis served as the school’s president until his death in 1895.

“Everybody knows who Frederick Douglas is, who Harriet Tubman is and of course Martin Luther King Jr., along with Jackie Robinson,” Brightharp said. “But Alexander Bettis lived within 10 miles of Graniteville where Bettis Academy is – a road some of you used to ride on every day to attend Byrd Elementary School.”

Bettis was born a slave in Edgefield County in 1836. He was raised by a woman known as the Widow Jones, who owned the plantation where he lived.

“She broke the law by teaching him to read,” Brightharp said. “There was a law in South Carolina that said you could get up to five years in jail if you got caught teaching a black person to read.”

The Widow Jones taught the young man about character, forthrightness and honesty. She would trust Bettis with taking produce to Augusta to sell it and even go to the bank for her to deposit the money, Brightharp said.

In the 20th century, Bettis Academy educated thousands of children and operated a cannery – distributing thousands of pounds of food to the poor. The school is on the National Register of Historical Places. A restoration project formally began about 10 years ago.

“I taught history in schools for four years, then at Paine College for years,” said Brightharp. “This area has so much history.”

Dr. Lloydette Young, the Leavelle McCampbell principal, was pleased with Brightharp’s presentation.

“Our students are not really aware of how much history is around them,” she said. “I hope this inspires and encourages them to look at the history that’s right here in Graniteville.”