Stuck in Time
The movement to desegregate precollegiate education got its start in Summerton, S.C. But then it passed right on by.
Fifty-five years ago, the Rev. Joseph A. De Laine and some of his followers in this South Carolina town decided they'd had enough. Enough walking or catching their children a ride several miles for school, since no bus was provided for black children. Enough of a high school principal they believed was corrupt. Enough of a bad education at the hands of white leaders who happened to be their neighbors and bosses.
They met in the churches of Summerton and the flat farmland around Clarendon County, and their courage helped propel the legal movement for equality in American precollegiate education.
With the filing in 1950 of Briggs v. Elliott, a lawsuit that was the first of four consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, families from this little town would make their mark on history. The battle they started here with petitions in the late 1940s helped desegregate public schools and paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
What it did not do was change the way Summerton educates its young people.
Here in this birthplace of the school desegregation movement, integration has failed. Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Brown case—and more than three decades after many South Carolina public schools integrated—black and white students in Summerton mostly do not mix.
Only 2 percent of the students in Summerton's public schools are white—a percentage that has not changed much in 30 years. They number about two dozen of the more than 1,100 students in the town's public schools, in a county where about 60 percent of the residents are black.
The vast majority of white students here attend Clarendon Hall, a small, private academy that opened in the mid-1960s for white families ready to flee the public schools as implementation of the Brown decision finally arrived.
The public and private schools operate in a town with two stoplights and only 900 people, where fears and resentments stirred by the desegregation case still linger. Some residents here lament that the economy and local society have changed little since De Laine and his flock dared to challenge Summerton's separate, unequal way of life.
Howard Sterling's 2nd graders at the public St. Paul Primary School gasped when a visitor told them that it was once against the law for black and white students to attend school together.
|Read the accompanying story, "Collective Action."|
A few mouths dropped open as they listened to stories about De Laine, who once led parent meetings at a church within walking distance of their school outside Summerton. The De Laine family's home burned while firemen watched, and the minister and teacher fled South Carolina in 1955 after he returned gunfire aimed at his house. Later a minister in New York state, he would be a wanted man in his home state for decades.
A boy in Sterling's class raised his hand to ask: "That really happened?"
Each one of the 20 or so children in the teacher's summer school class was African-American. "An integrated system would be stronger," says Patricia R. Middleton, the African-American principal at St. Paul Primary.
Many classes at St. Paul appear to be well-taught and the teachers motivated. But the district, officially known as Clarendon County School District One, has problems. The Summerton public schools have posted low test scores for years, and administrative scandals have plagued the district.
The low-slung brick building that houses St. Paul Primary is too small, so portable classrooms fill the back lot. The restrooms, although clean and well-supplied, haven't been renovated in many years. Music and art teachers were let go last school year after state budget cuts.
Nearly half the students who enroll in 9th grade at Scott's Branch High School, the district's only high school, don't graduate on time. Last year, the average combined SAT score at Scott's Branch dipped to 761 out of a possible 1600—the lowest average of any high school in South Carolina.
Still, there are signs the public schools are doing better. St. Paul Primary in November learned of vastly improved test scores, becoming the first school in the community to earn a "good" rating on state report cards.
The picture isn't nearly as bleak for Clarendon District Two, a 3,500-student district that encompasses the county seat of Manning.
Manning is a vibrant little town of about 4,000 residents, some seven miles from Summerton, with a traditional square around the courthouse and a series of new businesses stretching toward Interstate 95. There's a new commercial strip that includes a car dealership and fast-food places.
The public schools in Manning are larger and in better shape than Summerton's. Manning High School, the centerpiece, has a statue of its Monarch lion mascot standing on a giant lawn in front of the building. The football stadium behind the school is large and impressive enough for some universities.
Today, the Manning district's enrollment is about 70 percent black. The diversity in the schools closely mirrors the racial makeup of the local population. Test scores in the Manning schools are about average compared with those in the rest of the state.
Local leaders attribute the integration of the schools to several influential white families, including that of state Sen. John Land and his wife, Marie, who kept their children enrolled and urged others to do the same.
Marie Land campaigned for a bond vote that helped renovate schools and paid for a new jewel: the Manning Early Childhood Center. The sprawling campus boasts skylights, and colorful columns inside that look like huge stacks of children's blocks.
Summerton school leaders were so impressed with the new school in Manning that Clarendon District One decided to build an early-childhood center of its own. But money ran short, and the structure stands half-finished behind the district office.
Students here in Summerton know that the enrollment in Manning and other towns is more integrated than their district's, and they sometimes question the quality of the education they receive.
Jonathan Henry, a junior at Scott's Branch High whose great-great-grandfather, Gilbert H. Henry, was a plaintiff in Briggs v. Elliott, has heard about the movement to desegregate schools from his relatives. He seems bewildered, though, when asked about his interactions with white students. He doesn't really know any.
A girl he knows in Manning has spoken of her white classmates, he offers. "She [has been] telling me there's not any difference in personality and things they like to do," Henry says.
Natasha Lemon, an 11th grader at Scott's Branch who plays every sport and is a drummer in the school band, wishes the local schools and community offered more. She learned at a summer camp about dance, music, and French. "I'm so in love with it," she says of the language. But her school offers only Spanish, and the other subjects are limited because the same teacher juggles drama, English, and art, she says.
Lemon hears of schools elsewhere that have laptop computers, swimming pools, and paved running tracks. As for integration, she says, Scott's Branch has only a handful of students who aren't black. "We're so blocked off from each other," she says.
Superintendent Clarence Willie, now in his second year at Clarendon One, has named three new principals, smoothed out recent budget problems, and set higher academic goals. Integration would help the schools, he says, but isn't what he was hired to do.
"My job is to run the best school system, according to the laws and policies, the best that I can," says Willie, an African-American administrator who was hired after a career in North Carolina public schools. He's now pushing for a town vote on a tax increase that would help finish the early-childhood center and move St. Paul Primary's students into the new school.
The superintendent adds that a new economic catalyst would help Summerton change and grow. He pins his hopes on Lake Marion, a couple of miles away. The lake's swampy fringes make for great fishing, which has stirred development across the lake.
State Rep. Alex Harvin III, whose family has played a leading role in white Summerton for generations, says he has tried during some 30 years in the South Carolina legislature to work for the town's economic development. He has had little luck, while suburban and coastal areas of the state boom.
Clarendon Hall opened in 1965 at the Summerton First Baptist Church as a private school for students working toward college and professional careers. Everyone in Summerton knows, though, that the school was started for one reason—in anticipation of school integration, which finally came in 1970.
Today, Clarendon Hall enrolls about 275 students in preschool through 12th grade. The first two black students ever to attend the school enrolled in the 2001-02 school year, officials say. This year, the school has five African-American students.
The traditional lack of racial diversity was immediately apparent to Headmaster Michael "Doc" Connors and his wife, Pat, a preschool teacher. The couple retired here in 1999 after long teaching careers in Tully, N.Y. Michael Connors taught science and math at Clarendon Hall and coached football and track before becoming headmaster two years ago.
When he arrived, he thought it natural that Clarendon Hall students would play Scott's Branch High in sports. The schools are only a couple of miles apart. He helped organize a preseason basketball scrimmage, and at first, didn't realize the importance of what he was doing.
" 'Black kids are playing white kids on the same basketball court for the first time in history,' " Connors recalls someone telling him. "I was sort of taken aback by the whole thing."
Clarendon Hall is a building of well-kept, modest classroom wings connected by outdoor breezeways. Connors is leading a $1 million building campaign to renovate the campus, including the addition of a white-columned entrance and office area. Most of the teachers are experienced and certified, but earn only about $17,000 a year, with no benefits.
Tuition runs about $2,600. No scholarships are available, but members of the school's board and other benefactors donate generously, Connors says, when families need help with the costs. Mostly, families choose Clarendon Hall for the smaller classes, the evangelical Christian emphasis, and the strict discipline policies, he says.
More minority students are welcome at Clarendon Hall, he adds, but he's not sure how many will end up enrolling. "I'm pleased; I think everybody is pleased," he says of the new arrivals.
Joseph C. Elliott served as the headmaster of Clarendon Hall from 1999 until he hired the current headmaster in 2002. A grandson of R.M. Elliott—the school board chairman who was the lead defendant in Briggs v. Elliott—he lives down a dirt lane outside Summerton, lined with a tunnel of oaks draped with Spanish moss. The old Cantey house where he dwells has been in his mother's family for seven generations.
Harry Briggs, who sued Elliott's paternal grandfather in the case, grew up on the property. Elliott grew up knowing Briggs' parents as "Uncle Ned" and "Aunt Laura." Elliott's father later bulldozed their little tin-roofed house, which could be seen from the front porch of the larger home. "Harry Briggs' mother was the maid in this house for 40 or 50 years," Elliott says.
Although he is clearly part of the old guard in Summerton, Elliott says his experiences as a teacher and administrator in public schools elsewhere have left him with moderate views on race.
A history buff who has taught college classes, Elliott is concerned that some white leaders in Summerton are remembered only as racists. There was more to them than that, he says. "The hero in all this was certainly not my grandfather," he acknowledges, adding, "He did what was expected of him."
He remembers his grandfather as a man of great physical strength who would kindly give his grandchildren pocket change. Not formally educated, R.M. Elliott owned a lumber company in town and dabbled in cotton gins and farming.
Joseph Elliott's mother's side of the family is believed to have given the Briggs family food after their supplies and employment were cut off in the bitter aftermath of the case. "I think it took some courage to do so," Elliott says.
However, he's also concerned that white people in Summerton don't respect or understand the courage it took for the black plaintiffs to challenge segregation. When he talks about that view, "old friends look away," Elliott says.
The continuing separation of the races here, he believes, is partly due to hard feelings engendered by the lawsuit.
"Segregation in Summerton does hang on the case," he says, but also is complicated by the relatively poor quality of the public schools, racial bias, and cultural and class differences.
For black families, he says, whites' silence about the case "translates to them as a belief among whites that they believe in segregation still."
Summerton is gradually beginning to recognize itself as the birthplace of the legal action that culminated in the historic Brown to recognize itself as the birthplace of the legal action that culminated in the historic Brown decision in May 1954. Plenty of people here want the schools to do better and for the local economy to pick up steam. The lack of change, many here agree, isn't benefiting anyone.
Willie, the Summerton superintendent, and Connors of Clarendon Hall have joined economic-development committees trying to revive the downtown. They're also discussing more joint school activities.
The Briggs-De Laine-Pearson Foundation, created in part by three children of the Rev. Joseph A. De Laine, holds banquets to celebrate Briggs v.Elliott and is raising money for a building that will house historical exhibits related to the landmark case.
Local signs of progress include the Fishers of Men, an interracial Christian men's group that meets monthly in Summerton churches for cookouts, prayers, and fellowship. On a Saturday morning last summer, a dozen or more men, black and white, joined hands in prayer at each school in Summerton.
"We ask for togetherness, Lord, because togetherness is what we need," prayed Aaron Jones, a member of Liberty Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church, where De Laine and others once met to organize against the local school leaders.
But even in the prayer group, there were signs of separation. At Clarendon Hall, a white man thanked God for the "men and women who had the vision" to start the school, and "for the virtues and the morals of these kids here."
At Scott's Branch High, there were prayers among some of the white men to "change the culture" of the school, for students to save their "virtues" until marriage, and for the students to respect their elders.
Asked if the men's group means that the barriers that have separated white and black here for so long may be finally lifting, organizer Val Elliott, a cousin of Joseph C. Elliott, says he isn't so sure. "It's going to take some more time," he says.
Fifty years, and Summerton needs just a little more time.
Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Vol. 23, Issue 19, Pages 30-34Published in Print: January 21, 2004, as Stuck in Time