Mary Gordon Ellis (1890-1934)
One of ten children of Alexander M. Gordon and Mary Gamble Gordon, Sr., Mary Gordon was born in Gourdin, a community near Kingstree about a hundred miles from the South Carolina coast. She graduated from Kingstree High School in 1909 and taught locally for a year; determined to be a better teacher, she moved to Rock Hill, near the North Carolina border, where Gordon enrolled in Winthrop College. Working part-time to support herself, she graduated in 1913.
She then moved far south to Jasper County, near the Georgia border, where she was teacher/principal of the school at Gillisonville, an impoverished area with shockingly poor education. She married the next year; her husband, farmer and turpentine operator Junius Gather Ellis was relatively affluent. The couple had three children, Mary Elizabeth, Margaret Lee, and Junius Gather, and when they were school age, they were sent to live with relatives in Savannah, Georgia, where they could attend better schools.
In 1924, seven years after marriage, Mary Gordon Ellis was appointed superintendent of schools for Jasper County. It was unusual for a married woman to hold such a position, but she was determined to improve education. She closed one-room rural schools and merged students into larger schools. Ellis also mandated a teacher-training program, something that was not necessarily popular with longtime teachers. Even more controversially, she sought to improve schools for African Americans. She provided their first bus transportation, new textbooks, and hired a black college graduate, Mary Alice Miller, to supervise the county's schools for blacks. Whites objected, and Ellis was fired.
In 1928, she ran against the man who led the opposition to her educational improvements and narrowly won the state Senate race. Ellis did her usual good job, and her reelections were much easier. Unfortunately, she was forced to retire in 1934, after being diagnosed with cancer, and died later that year. Just 44 years old, she was buried at Williamsburg Cemetery in Kingstree. Mary Gordon Ellis' emphasis on education had a positive influence, and in 1995, she was honored with a portrait in the South Carolina Senate.