Section 5377 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina of 1942: “It shall be unlawful for pupils of one race to attend the schools provided by boards of trustees for persons of another race.”
Fifty years ago, yesterday, The School District of Greenville County became one of the last school districts in one of the last states to comply with the “spirit” of the Supreme Court Case Brown v Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. It had only taken sixteen years to accomplish this compliance.
1954’s Brown v Board included a South Carolina case filed by then Civil Rights lawyer, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on behalf of Harry and Eliza Briggs and 20 other families living in Summerton, SC, a small town in Clarendon County. Filed in 1947, Briggs v Elliott challenged school segregation in Clarendon County, South Carolina. It was the first case filed of five cases combined under the Brown umbrella.
Unanimously, the Justices found that separate was inherently unequal and that “public school segregation was unconstitutional.” They also found segregation “fostered feelings of inferiority among black children that could harm their educational futures.”
Brown overthrew Plessy v Ferguson’s “Separate but Equal”, a railroad case from the 1890s that had been applied to education. Mandated segregation in South Carolina was over…defacto segregation wasn’t.
I used the word “spirit” earlier because for sixteen years South Carolina lawmakers systematically attempted to put off the inevitable by increasing spending on black schools, implementing “pseudo” freedom of choice, and an end-run with what became known as “token” integration.
State Senator Strom Thurmond of Dixiecrat fame helped to pen what became known as the Southern Manifesto, pledging, along with one hundred other federal lawmakers, the intent to resist integration as far as the law would allow.
It seemed South Carolina and other states, mostly Southern, were intent on being deliberate rather than speedy when instructed by the Supreme Court to integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed” in 1954.
With a Mississippi Federal Court ruling, segregation ended over a long weekend in Greenville County on February 17, 1970, with the busing of sixty percent of the black school populations to various schools distant from their own neighborhoods. Only ten percent of white children were bused. Five hundred educators found themselves cleaning out their desks and moving to different desks in different schools as well. This was done to reflect the racial makeup of the county, 80% white, 20% black.
What had been black high schools, some quite new became middle schools or closed that weekend. These centers of pride for many communities, like Sterling High or Lincoln High, were now empty; only living on in the memories of many people of color.
I was a second semester junior in college at the time and not very concerned about the politics of my state. The next year, my senior year, I would find myself an unpaid assistant baseball coach while doing my student teaching at a local high school. It would be my first-time interacting with black students and athletes. It would probably be some of their first interactions with white teachers and coaches. Somehow we survived.
From all I can glean from friends and fellow educators who taught during the period, the change was relatively peaceful. I imagine there was some selective memory loss but unlike other states, few buses, if any, were pelted with rocks. There were no rabid white crowds shouting expletives to little schoolgirls. The governor did not stand on the schoolhouse steps shouting, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Still…I can’t imagine what those thousands of students were thinking at the time as they rode school buses to new locations. I’m unable to fathom the fear of the unknown that prevailed, both black and white. I can only imagine what might have gone on in restrooms, locker rooms, in the parking lot, on buses…out of range of teacher’s and administrator’s ears.
By the time I became a full-time teacher and coach in 1973, I found race relations still raw and contentious. Generally, the question of race relations simmered just beneath the surface on briefly exposing itself. There were just enough brief flareups to remind us. Beliefs don’t go gently into the night just because judges tell them to.
For years we had been indoctrinated to believe races should be kept separate as a benefit to both, and then in the blink of an eye it was over…or was it?
There were still arguments made and old white men continued to try and find ways around the law. Court cases would still be heard, especially over busing. Isolated areas would still attempt to hang on to the old ways. Affluent white folk found another way to be separate.
One hundred and thirty-four private schools and academies opened in South Carolina during the period, one hundred and thirty-one were opened to whites only. Many still exist today, many still are all white with names featuring Lee, Davis or Calhoun.
Over fifty thousand white students fled to private schools and today one in seven public schools in South Carolina are considered “highly segregated” still. “Separate but equal” seems to have a firm foothold all over the South and it appears the Secretary of Education is intent on strengthening its foothold nationwide while weakening an already weakened public school system.
I often hear or read, “We need to move on. That was so long ago. I don’t understand why it is always about race.” I find it is often people of my race who make these comments. The same people who insist their heritage is under attack when certain flags are removed from federal buildings.
I point out that Jim Crow was still entrenched during the years of my youth well into my college days. As I reach a major birthday in a month and a half, I find that 1970 doesn’t seem that long ago. If it is during my lifetime it can’t be that long ago.
I remember the signs stating, “White’s Only.” I remember fire hoses, German Shepards and burning buses. I didn’t fight for my Civil Rights, I didn’t have to. I’m sure for those who fought for their Civil Rights…continue to fight for their Civil Rights, it seems like only yesterday.
According to various accounts, although Brown resulted in a legal victory against segregation, it was a costly victory for those associated with the Briggs case.
Reverend Joseph De Laine, the generally acknowledged leader of Summerton’s African-American community at the time, was fired from his post as principal at a local school in Silver. His wife Mattie was also fired from her position as a teacher at Scott’s Branch school, as were all the other signers of the original petition.
De Laine’s church was also burned and he moved to Buffalo, New York in 1955 after surviving an attempted drive-by shooting. He never returned to South Carolina.
Harry and Eliza Briggs, on behalf of whose children the suit was filed, both lost their jobs in what was called “economic retribution.” They both left South Carolina.
After death threats and by a joint resolution of the South Carolina House of Representatives, Federal Judge Walter Waring was forced to leave South Carolina for good. He had sided with the petitioners.
An interesting article I just read, https://www.greenvilleonline.com/get-access/?return=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.greenvilleonline.com%2Fstory%2Fnews%2F2020%2F02%2F17%2Fdesegregation-1-out-of-7-south-carolina-schools-highly-segregated%2F2843394001%2F
Don Miller is a retired educator and athletic coach. He writes on various subjects using various genres. His author’s page can be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM
The image is from “A New Wave of School Integration”, The Century Foundation, https://tcf.org/content/report/a-new-wave-of-school-integration/?session=1