Bringing local history to life

Just a little over a year ago, Brian Dolphin was attending an Oktoberfest celebration at a local Lutheran church. When a new acquaintance at his table mentioned that he was part of the parent teacher organization at A.C. Moore Elementary, Dolphin lit up. An intern at USC’s McKissick Museum, Dolphin was familiar with an exhibit there about Moore, a biology professor and two-time acting president of the University of South Carolina in the early 20th century.

“I told him, ‘We have Moore’s microscope on display,’ ” he recalled. “And when I told him the whole story about A.C. Moore, he was fascinated. He had never heard it before. He was excited that a connection between A.C. Moore the man and the school named for him was possible.”

For Dolphin, it was a call to action. As a master’s student in USC’s public history program, it’s in his bailiwick.

“I realized that if the parents involved at the school don’t know the particulars about A.C. Moore’s life, then the students probably don’t,” he said. “Maybe not even the faculty. So I thought there was a good opportunity to teach these kids about A.C. Moore.”

Outside the scope of any class assignment or course requirement, he set out to create an educational experience for the students at A.C. Moore Elementary. He started by talking with Kathy Keenan, a classmate in a public history course whom he knew was doing research on Moore. Keenan was also excited about the opportunity to bring A.C. Moore to life for the teachers and students at the school.

Keenan, the development coordinator for the South Carolina Honors College, is also pursuing a master’s in public history, taking one class tuition-free every semester as a staff benefit. Her interest in A.C. Moore has a personal connection. “My husband’s name is Andrew Charles Moore Keenan Jr.,” she said. “A.C. Moore was his great-great uncle.” Keenan had researched Moore through his papers in the Manuscripts Division of USC’s South Caroliniana Library. The collection includes Moore’s speeches, letters, alumni records, zoological notes and botany lectures.

Keenan also helped widen the loop of interested parties. “I had been talking with John Nelson, the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium,” she said. “We went and met with him about the school project, and he was very interested in it.”

The herbarium is yet another part of Moore’s historical imprint on Columbia and USC. At age 16, he came to Carolina in 1883 as a student. After graduation, he worked as a high school principal and a school superintendent. He then studied botany in graduate school at the University of Chicago, returning to Carolina in 1900 to teach biology, geology and mineralogy.

He was soon appointed the first chair of the new department of biology in 1905. He served as interim university president twice, 1908-09 and 1913-14. He served on the Columbia School Board and was its chair for more than 20 years.

Moore’s life meant something to the people who knew him here. In addition to the herbarium, a garden on campus is named in his honor and his 350 plant specimens are part of a collection that now numbers more than 120,000. The elementary school honors the many years he dedicated to education.

The students who attend that school now have an opportunity to learn about the man for whom it is named. Working with materials on loan from McKissick Museum, from the A.C. Moore Herbarium and from Moore’s descendants, Dolphin and Keenan put together an exhibit that debuted at A.C. Moore Elementary in September. The cost of the exhibit panels was paid by the parent-teacher organization, said Roger Schweitzer, the PTO chair.

Schoolchildren took tours of the exhibit with their classes throughout September. “They were so interested in it, and had so many questions,” said Jessica Warren, the librarian at the school. “They wanted to know how soon after it was built that they named it for A.C. Moore. One wondered how much the microscope in the display would cost now. Another stood up with his hands held wide and answered, ‘It’s priceless!’ ”

Only one of the faculty members knew much about A.C. Moore when the question was asked at a staff meeting, according to Warren. Now, they’re teaching their students about his life. Nelson, the curator of the herbarium, has also come to the school to show the teachers how to dry and press plant samples using the technique that Moore used. Hands-on plant pressing for the kids is planned for the spring.

For Dolphin, the results are particularly satisfying. “Public history is where you engage people with history,” he said. “Most historians stay in the university setting, writing journal articles and talking with each other. But with public history, people are more on the town, rather than in the gown. We’re out in the community engaging the public.”

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