Thomas Parker’s influence spread from Monaghan Mill to the Greenville library system
By Rulinda Price
S.C. Room Librarian, Greenville County Public Library
When the center of the American textile manufacturing industry shifted south from New England at the end of the 19th century, Greenville managed to position itself at the forefront of the trend. As a result, Greenville was known for many years as the “Textile Center of the World.” Roughly circular in shape at the dawn of the 20th century, the growing city was bisected by the Reedy River into an east side and a west side. Greenville’s textile industry was concentrated on its west side in an area that came to be known as the Textile Crescent. One of the mills was Monaghan and its president was Thomas Fleming Parker.
Parker was born in Charleston in 1860. His father, who died in 1862 on James Island at the Battle of Secessionville, was a successful merchant with ties to both Charleston and Philadelphia. Parker’s mother, Margaretta Fleming, remarried the very wealthy Charlestonian Prioleau Ravenel at the end of the Civil War. Ravenel was an engineer who had worked on the Stumphouse Mountain tunnel before the war and fell in love with the mountains. During the 1880s, he moved his young wife and children, including his stepson Thomas, to Highlands, N.C.; this soon became their summer home.
Thomas came to Greenville in the 1890s. He went into partnership with his cousin, a lawyer named Lewis Wardlaw Parker; together they organized and built Monaghan Mill. As president, Thomas worked hard to make the mill a model of progressive management, paying close attention to the quality of life in the mill village. The YMCA club movement was growing in industrializing economies such as the new South, and in 1905 Parker hired the talented educator L. P. Hollis to direct the Monaghan Y. Parker was also crucial to the establishment of the Salvation Army Hospital, worked as chairman of the Boys Work Committee, and with his own funds hired the first city planner, Harlan P. Kelsey, to design parks and recreation areas for the Monaghan mill village.
Parker had an enormous influence on the school system in Greenville. The only two high schools in town during the early 20th century were Greenville High and Sterling High, the former a white school, the latter for African-Americans. Many of the textile mills, including Monaghan, lay outside the city limits and the students there had to pay a $5 fee to attend Greenville High. Accordingly, in 1922 Parker and other local leaders petitioned the state legislature to create a new school district for the mill children. This district was later named the Parker School District in honor of Thomas’ cousin Lewis who had died in 1916. An innovation at the time, the new school focused on vocational training.
Possibly the greatest contribution which Thomas Parker made to Greenville was the establishment of our public library. His leadership managed to focus the various local individuals and groups interested in providing free public library service to city residents. Parker donated $5,000 of his personal funds to build the collection, and on May 20, 1921, the first branch of the Greenville County Public Library System was opened on Coffee Street. Later that summer a case of new books was purchased by the library to form the nucleus of a collection which was housed at the Phillis Wheatley Association on McBee Avenue; this was the first public library for African-Americans in South Carolina. Parker later donated $50,000 to the association for a new building. In 1922 city residents voted to support their segregated library system with a tax, which allowed the facility to hire a professional librarian, Charlotte Templeton.
But Parker wasn’t done yet. When the city agreed to provide financial aid to the library, it meant that county residents, including the mill workers and their children, were no longer able to use the service. The answer was The Pathfinder, a three-quarter-ton Dodge truck outfitted with glass doors, locally built and paid for by Thomas Parker. Pathfinder was the first bookmobile ever operated in the South. It had its first run on Jan. 19, 1924, heading to Berea where it promptly became stuck in the mud on an unpaved road.
[ezcol_1third][/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_2third_end]Thomas Fleming Parker died on Dec. 31, 1926. From the start, Parker insisted that libraries were essentially democratic institutions, with the obligation to offer service to all people. The slogan used by the book truck, “Free Reading for Everybody,” soon became the library slogan, and although our first bookmobile was called the Pathfinder, Parker could be called that, too.[/ezcol_2third_end]
Monaghan: Monaghan Mill, co-founded in 1900 by Thomas Parker, has been converted into The Lofts of Greenville.