There is a woman in Mount Pleasant who quietly goes about her life. She raised a family with her husband of 57 years, retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs and went on to help the family business. Many people think of her as a friendly face at Ascue’s Body Shop. They don’t realize that the Mount Pleasant native is working diligently to preserve the history of an entire people, not only to honor the past but to better the future.
Pearl V. Ascue was born and raised in what is referred to by natives as “two-mile.” It’s an area about two miles from downtown Charleston near The Old Village. It was also zoned for Laing Elementary when Ascue was growing up. She attended the school, which was the first opened for Black children post-Civil War, until junior high.
The school started in a defunct Presbyterian church that had been riddled with bullets during the war. It was championed by an abolitionist named Cornelia Hancock and brought to fruition with the help of some local benefactors who knew children of color needed a place to become educated.
Ascue said, “It was an innovation at the time. Black and white folks came together to make sure Black children got an education and to acknowledge they are now a part of the United States.”
The school did more than teach basic reading and writing; they taught trades to ensure those who matriculated there would be able to join the workforce. Training in woodworking, shoe repair, sewing, brick masonry and more was made available. It was also the first school in South Carolina to welcome veterans back after service.
The school solely served the Black community until the time of integration in the 1960s. Today, descendants of Laing’s students still benefit from the education provided to their ancestors. It opened options for entire bloodlines.
“The school gave us a chance in every realm of life,” Ascue affirmed.
Laing is now a middle school made up of children from many different backgrounds. However, people like Pearl Ascue are working hard to make sure its legacy is never lost. Pearl is part of The Laing School Association, which campaigned for the commemorative plaque to be placed at the school’s original site. She has also been a part of efforts to encourage former attendees to keep the history of Laing alive, while educating current students on the school’s rich past. The entire day was devoted to teaching the students the history of the school on its 150th anniversary.
In the words of Ascue, “The legacy of Laing means opportunity.”
That’s a message that she never wants to see fade. The Laing School Association is now working to form scholarships for students who want to attend any college originally founded for Black students.
In addition to honoring the history of Laing, Ascue is also working to keep the culture of Mount Pleasant’s Ten-Mile community alive. Once a part of Awendaw and now annexed by Mount Pleasant, this community began as a “settlement community.” These lands were often developed by Blacks near plantations in which they were formerly enslaved. They grew into self-sustaining communities where people of color could live, work and play.
In recent years, sprawl, development and rising real estate prices have started driving out native residents of these areas. As president of the Ten-Mile Neighborhood Association, Ascue is working alongside Charleston County to preserve the culture of her community by making it a historical preservation district. She stressed that this is being done in a positive way.
“We, as a people, are proud of our community. The culture here means a lot, and we are working to save it,” she noted.
Salvation may be the theme of everything Pearl Ascue does. These communities and schools were lifelines for so many. She doesn’t want to simply revere that. She wants to sustain the legacy and grow it for generations to come.