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Florence Harllee - a life of quiet meaning

First published August 26, 2022 by the Morning News and SCNow as a Letter to the Editor and reproduced here with permission.

Hopefully an outsider, a Westerner…. can Opine:

This stark, lonely marker is all that is left of the legacy of Florence Henning Harllee placed in the ground at the Hopewell Presbyterian Church cemetery. The Florence Street, Harllee Blvd, is named for her father.

Florence and sister Elizabeth Ashby (Lizzie) remained single, sometimes living together, for a while at the corner of Irby and Pine Streets, because rather than husbands and families, they dedicated their lives to the children of Florence, the namesake small town of Florence herself. The children of Florence, SC and their education whether Black or White, whether rich or poor, whether from the northside or the southside or the central side was their focus. The sisters’ lives were dedicated to children. If there ever was a family fortune, the sisters never saw it; in fact, they supplemented their meager incomes with door to door sales of spices, food flavorings and yard goods.

The family claims even today that Florence could never forget the words of her father, saying, even though she was only a four year old in 1852 standing aside a rail in a small, insignificant stop along a greater railroad, the Wilmington and Manchester line, “This place will be called in your name, Florence.” The site of the station was near the present day Florence Mall (since moved to the back of McLeod Hospital). The idea to name the small station after Florence was from the construction supervisor, Mr. Fleming.

Florence Harllee was given a small silver cup as memento inscribed with her name, which still resides in the collection of the magnificent Florence Museum. The Town of Florence was formed in 1871 and the City of Florence in 1890. In Florence she decided to stay along with her sister until their deaths (1927 and 1944).

Young Florence went off to school in Charleston, SC and Raleigh, NC, but came back to Florence, SC to teach school and be a librarian; she even once thought about devoting herself as a nun/sister in the Episcopal Church (her family helped to found St John’s), to work with children, but chose public education instead. She taught both here in Florence and at the Woodville School. When the first Florence public library was organized in the Townsend offices and moved out of Allen’s Corner in about 1903 to City Hall, later onto the site of the Harllee home (1925 – the sisters moving over to a humble bungalow in Chase Park), she helped to organize it, and served as the founding Librarian. Some folks say they were told long ago that she would sit on the floor with children all around her, just reading to them; on the other hand, they all knew a library was a place for quiet. The Library grew and grew to engulf the whole corner (1978) and then in modern times moved to its majestic temple, the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation County Library on Dargan Street (2004).

Florence’s quiet public posture was deliberate; she was not one of the elite, not one of the high and mighty. In fact, when the Pee Dee Bridge across the river was finished in 1923, Florence County and Marion County officials wanted Florence Harllee to be front and center of an expected crowd of 6000; as the namesake, but also because they loved her and respected her work. But she respectively declined, writing “The very idea of being willing to make a spectacle of ourselves is totally out of the question” and she did not attend although still on the program – she would be totally amazed and dismayed by our modern publicity driven world.

But in death she did get some notice, a credit to how beloved and important she was to Florence: Mayor Gilbert wrote on May 6, 1927 “Whereas God, in His all-wise Providence has seen fit to remove from our midst Miss Florence Harllee, for whom the City of Florence was named, and whereas, it’s is our desire to pay tribute of love and respect to her memory; Therefore, I, H.K. Gilbert, as Mayor of Florence, do herby affix my hand and seal to this Proclamation requesting all the people of Florence to suspend business generally today from 11:00 AM to 12 Noon, the hour of her Funeral. “ Her funeral was of course at St. John’s conducted by Parson Poynor.

How many of you will have the City shut down during your funeral?

Even in her lifetime, Florence was recognized as a selfless worker for the public good, particularly children, eschewing publicity.

We need more Florence’s today.

Stephen A Imbeau

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