Educator. Swearingen was born in Trenton, Edgefield County, on January 9, 1875, the son of John Cloud Swearingen and Anna Tillman. Blinded in a hunting accident in 1888, Swearingen, along with his family, insisted that he receive the same education as that of a sighted student. Originally sent to the Georgia Academy for the Blind in 1888, Swearingen attended the Cedar Spring School for the Blind and Deaf from 1889 to 1894. After making a personal appeal to college officials, Swearingen was allowed to enroll in South Carolina College in 1895. He graduated with an A.B. in 1899 as the highest honor graduate of the Clariosophic Literary Society. He began his career in education at Cedar Spring as a teacher and principal of the blind department from 1899 through 1908. In 1916 Swearingen married Mary Hough. The marriage produced three children.
In 1908 Swearingen was elected state superintendent of education, a position he would hold unopposed for fourteen years. He was quick to state that he was not political but was interested in education and saw the position as an opportunity to serve the state. Progressive and pragmatic, Swearingen oversaw the significant expansion and improvement of public schools in South Carolina, thanks in large measure to the good relationships he fostered with progressive governors Richard Manning and Robert Cooper. Swearingen did, however, have an oppositional relationship with controversial governor Coleman Blease.
Swearingen was instrumental in getting several acts of educational legislation passed. Financial aid to school districts was raised several times, and local school tax laws were enacted. Swearingen expanded the minimum length of the school term and set size requirements for schools to encourage consolidation. New regulations for certifying teachers and a state-mandated curriculum with appropriate state-approved textbooks were also part of Swearingen’s legacy. He enacted a statewide system of creating and inspecting public high schools. Swearingen was instrumental in the implementation and enforcement of the federal Smith-Hughes Act, which provided federal dollars for agricultural and vocational education.
Swearingen also used his office for broader reforms. He was a proponent of mill schools across the state. Though shackled by segregation, Swearingen worked with private funding organizations to foster education for African Americans. Working with Wil Lou Gray, he helped implement a series of night schools to combat adult illiteracy under the slogan “Let South Carolina secede from illiteracy.” Outside the office, Swearingen was one of the charter members of the South Carolina Association for the Blind, which he used to promote education and industrial training for blind students, black and white, across South Carolina.
In 1922 Swearingen was encouraged to run for governor by the county superintendents of education, who wished to remove him from office. A friend left an anonymous note in his office to this effect, and once Swearingen realized his mistake, he reentered the race for state superintendent. His Bleasite opponents, however, embarked on a statewide smear campaign to ensure Swearingen’s defeat. After losing the election, Swearingen retired from public life. He devoted himself to farming and lumbering family lands in South Carolina and Florida. He died in Columbia on September 24, 1957, and was buried in Greenlawn Memorial Park.
Dreyfuss, James Vernon. John Eldred Swearingen: Superintendent of Education in South Carolina 1909–1922. Columbia: College of Education, University of South Carolina, 1997.
Janak, Edward. “John Eldred Swearingen and the Development of the Public High School in South Carolina.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 2003.
Swearingen, John Eldred. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Swearingen, John Eldred, and Wil Lou Gray. Midsummer Drive against Illiteracy, for White Schools. Columbia, S.C.: State Superintendent of Educa- tion, 1920.
Swearingen, Mary Hough. A Gallant Journey: Mr. Swearingen and His Family. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1959.