School & District Management

A Dream Deferred

By Alan Richard — May 01, 2004 19 min read
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In the town where the Brown struggle began, segregation lives on.

Howard Sterling’s summer class of 6- and 7-year-olds couldn’t believe what they were hearing. The gasps were audible as a guest speaker told the St. Paul Primary School students how it had once been against the law for black and white children to attend school together. Little mouths dropped open when they learned that the legal battle to end racial segregation in America’s public schools began in the 1940s right there in Summerton, a town of just 900 people in remote, east central South Carolina. They learned how Reverend Joseph De Laine had led parent meetings at a church just down the road that culminated in a lawsuit called Briggs v. Elliott—the earliest of five cases rolled into Brown v. Board of Education.

To these kids, De Laine’s story sounded like something out of the movies. A black minister born in Clarendon County, he taught in one-room schoolhouses all around Summerton. As the Briggs case was being filed in 1950, he was transferred to a church in Lake City, 50 miles northeast. He kept the house he owned in Summerton until it was burned down the following year, along with much of his family’s furniture and keepsakes. Later, a car full of white gunmen attacked De Laine’s home in Lake City, and he returned fire, allegedly wounding five men. He fled that same night, eventually ending up in New York City, where De Laine was given shelter and a pulpit at an African Methodist Episcopal church. He would return to his native South Carolina only a few times, and as a wanted man. Well after his death in 1974, the minister was pardoned by South Carolina’s governor and later awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Hearing how De Laine and others from Summerton had helped make history by filing a case that, 50 years ago, resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision to end segregated schooling, a boy raised his hand. Like all of his classmates and almost every other student at St. Paul, he was African American.

“That really happened?” he asked.

Summerton is home to two stoplights, a few shops, a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, and a diner known statewide for its cooking and sweet tea. A silver water tower with a shining sun painted on the side stands watch over the town in southwestern Clarendon County, a sprawling area that straddles Interstate 95 about 100 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Swampy in spots, Clarendon County sits on a coastal plain that’s flat as a penny. The birthplace of four South Carolina governors and once part of the Richardson plantation, which covered thousands of acres, the area lost its once-formidable political clout after cotton stepped down from its throne in the mid-20th century.

Jaquan Johnson starts his day with breakfast at St. Paul Primary School in Summerton, N.C. The public school is still almost entirely populated by black students.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley

Today, Summerton has roughly 30,000 residents, with a slight African American majority. But of the 1,100 students in the area’s public schools, only two dozen are white. When Summerton finally bowed to court-ordered desegregation in 1970, after years of appeals filed by segregationist politicians, almost all of its white families sent their sons and daughters to Clarendon Hall, a new private school established just for them. Everyone else, mostly impoverished black descendants of slaves and sharecroppers, remained in the poorly funded public schools. Decades later, those students are still at a disadvantage. Nearly half the town’s 9th graders fail to graduate from high school within four years. The average combined SAT score for the 2002-03 school year at Scott’s Branch High School, named for the creek that runs through Summerton, was 761—the lowest of any high school in South Carolina and nearly 300 points below the national average.

So in the town where the Brown struggle began, segregation does live on. Yet it’s a more complicated kind of segregation, one that plagues both the public and private schools in Summerton for reasons not easy to define.

Some of the town’s educators are Clarendon County natives who know the region’s history all too well. Others moved to Summerton from other parts of the region and, after a year or two, grew to understand the legacy left by the divisive Briggs case.

The story began in 1947, when Reverend De Laine asked farmer Levi Pearson to file a lawsuit demanding that the district pay for school bus repairs so that children in the outlying community of Davis Station wouldn’t have to walk seven miles to get to school. The case was dismissed on a technicality. Two years later, De Laine and a group of Summerton parents complained that the principal of Scott’s Branch High was corrupt, incompetent, and surreptitiously charging fees for diplomas. When school officials resisted calls for change, De Laine and others met with NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall and decided to take the school board, led at the time by R.M. Elliott, to court. Gas-station attendant Harry Briggs was one of the first people to sign the petition; a number of other black parents and students later signed, becoming plaintiffs in the case.

But the Briggs case failed in a federal court in Charleston. So in 1952, Marshall, who would later become the first black Supreme Court justice, added Briggs to four other school desegregation cases that he was trying, collectively known as Brown v. Board. And on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. In Summerton, however, the judgment did not go into effect immediately. Appeals ground their way through the courts for nearly two decades as Summerton’s schools, and most of South Carolina’s, remained legally segregated.

Behind Liberty Hill A.M.E. Church in Summerton are the graves of some of the plaintiffs in the Briggs case. At the end of each day, as the sun sinks in the sky, their stones cast long shadows. The names include Annie Gibson, Willie Stukes, and Hazel Ragin, and their markers are flanked by walnut trees hung with Spanish moss. Laid to rest years ago in this quiet cemetery, they were never able to see their fight against segregation come to fruition. Even now, Clarendon County School District One is far from integrated. Two of Summerton’s public schools—Scott’s Branch Intermediate and the high school—have virtually no white students. They rarely have since state-ordered integration began. And the private Clarendon Hall, which boasts more respectable test scores and higher rates of college attendance for its graduates, enrolled its first African American students just four years ago.

The only somewhat integrated school in Summerton is St. Paul Primary, which, like some public schools in the South, is named after a local church. And its staff and administrators, like those in other schools, choose not to dwell on the past. Instead, they’re focused intently on providing their students, whatever their color, with the best education local resources will allow.

Which is why, this past summer, Howard Sterling was prepping his students for their upcoming 2nd grade year. After the kids had heard their guest talk about Briggs, it was right back to writing essays about summer field trips. A retired military officer who entered teaching as a second career, the 49-year-old Sterling didn’t mess around. His voice was deep and booming, his body thick and his chest stout. The space he was using looked like it belonged to a more matronly teacher, with baskets of plastic flowers scattered across the room and a fancy park bench fit for a rose garden.

One boy could barely write a sentence of the simplest nature, and he wasn’t alone. “As a class, your writing is weak—extremely weak,” Sterling told them. “You’ve got to do your part.”

Michael Connors first coached at, then became headmaster of, the private Clarendon Hall, opened in 1965 as desegregation appeals continued. It admitted its first black students in 2000.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley

St. Paul Primary sits almost within walking distance of the Liberty Hill church and graveyard. It’s a normal-looking school, a low-slung brick building with a sloping bright-blue metal roof. But it’s in need of renovation and doesn’t have nearly enough space to serve its 320 students in grades K-3 during the school year. So a village of portable classrooms stands close by.

Cramped as it is, St. Paul typifies everything that Summerton’s public schools could become. Improvement is evident in double-digit test score increases over the past several years, and this past winter, St. Paul earned a much higher grade on the state report card than any Summerton school ever had—an overall rating of “good.” Principal Patricia Middleton may be one of the reasons. The veteran educator, who began teaching at St. Paul 10 years ago, was promoted to the administrative post two years ago. Driven by a natural ability to teach, a friendly demeanor, and a big laugh, she expects her teachers to provide thoughtful and engaging lessons that align with state academic standards and tests.

Help has also come from an outside source—the nonprofit Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence, a South Carolina-based group that uses a federal grant to provide professional support for struggling schools. Blue Ribbon has been working with St. Paul for two years, and director Bart Teal considers the changes remarkable. “We could see bright eyes, we could see children that wanted to learn,” he says. “The teachers we saw loved the children, but over the years they had been convinced that community couldn’t perform [as well as] other communities.”

To help build confidence and pick up new ideas, teachers attend out-of-state workshops as far away as Cleveland, then make presentations after returning. “They drive all night to get there, all night to get back,” Teal says.

But Middleton, who’s originally from nearby Orangeburg County, acknowledges that recent changes haven’t attracted more white families. “When I came to Clarendon County, I did not know the history I was stepping into,” she says. “We can’t go out and drag [the white families] in. Brown v. Board and Briggs v. Elliott...opened up what the old people said [was] a can of worms. Because of [the district’s] will to make things different, that’s the shadow that’s still hanging over us.”

Michael “Doc” Connors first learned about that reality not long after he started coaching at Clarendon Hall in 1999. Like many northeasterners who drive south along I-95 on vacations, he’d passed through Clarendon County many times. An affable former teacher and small-town coach from New York state, Connors and his wife retired to the region, attracted by the affordable homes and nearby Lake Marion. He took a part-time job at a local golf course, and its owner told administrators at Clarendon Hall about Connors’ background. Dangling the opportunity to coach football and basketball, they lured him back into the classroom as a science teacher.

Summerton has roughly 30,000 residents, with a slight African American majority. But of the 1,100 students in the area’s public schools, only two dozen are white.

Soon after taking the job, Connors asked why the nearby Scott’s Branch High wasn’t on the basketball team’s schedule. Even though the schools are less than two miles apart, they’d never even practiced against each other. When he scheduled a scrimmage, Connors asked someone why the event was such a big deal. He recalls being told, “Black kids are playing white kids on the same basketball court for the first time in history.”

“I was sort of taken aback,” he says.

A year later, Connors was named headmaster of Clarendon Hall. By all accounts, he’s great both with teachers and kids. A gregarious fellow with an athletic build, the 59-year-old continues to teach biology, physics, and chemistry. He’s turned the school’s coaching duties over to his son, Casey.

Clarendon Hall enrolls about 260 students in preschool through 12th grade. Founded by local white families and a Southern Baptist church in Summerton, the school opened in 1965. By 1970, almost every white student in the area was enrolled there. Many black families claim that, for the next 30 years, they simply weren’t welcome at Clarendon Hall. Four years after admitting its first African American student, the school now has five. In the past, Connors says, students have included those of Indian and Lebanese descent, the children of merchants who ran businesses in the area.

The private school may be ahead of the town’s public schools in terms of standardized test scores, but its own average SAT scores fall short of the state’s leading public schools. Clarendon Hall is a prep school not for the Ivy League but for state universities and religious colleges. It pays teachers $17,000 a year on average, with no health benefits. That’s a salary lower than Summerton’s public schools, even though the district is among the lowest- paying school systems in a state where labor unions are illegal.

Still, Clarendon Hall provides for its students. Its grounds, athletic facilities, and classrooms are extremely well-kept, and class sizes are small. While it’s not considered a religious school, evangelical Christianity pervades campus life—from Bible verses posted on its Web site to prayers at school events. During a tour of the campus, Connors opened a door leading to a normal-looking classroom with red window dressings, a spotless tile floor, and a bulletin board that read, “God Is The Creator of Science.” Students attend a weekly chapel service, and Bible courses are required. The dress and discipline codes are strict—no exposed midriffs and no baseball caps, for example, and anyone who’s ever been pregnant cannot enroll. Even run-of-the-mill rule-breaking won’t be tolerated. “When we have a discipline problem, about the second time, we put a stamp on ’em and we send ’em home,” Connors says.

While Summerton’s public schools cut art and music classes in the elementary grades after a series of state budget cuts, Clarendon Hall emphasizes them. The private school provides music classes for students in all grades, a full arts program, and a number of unusual extracurriculars. “We shoot skeet on campus,” Connors says. “I’ve had people say [we] might be the only school in the state that allows guns.”

But Connors refuses to compare Clarendon Hall with other institutions, saying he wants both Summerton’s private and public schools to improve while moving toward integration. Indeed, the schools are starting to partner in small but significant ways. There’s been talk at Scott’s Branch High of inviting Clarendon students to an oratory contest, and Connors is interested in collaborating on drama and arts projects with the public schools. He also co-chairs a town economic development committee with a longtime employee of the public school district who is African American.

“Don’t denigrate other small schools or the public schools,” he says, referring to Summerton critics. “We’re doing the same things.”

That’s not exactly Natasha Lemon’s perspective. The junior at Scott’s Branch High enjoys the school’s small, family atmosphere, and she’s had chances to participate in numerous activities—basketball, volleyball, softball, marching band, and National Honor Society among them. But she also wonders why there aren’t more opportunities at the mostly black school.

Like many teachers in the area’s schools, St. Paul’s Howard Sterling is a transplant from elsewhere. Most of the two dozen white students in the 1,100-pupil districts attend St. Paul, which has seen test scores improve.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley

An attractive, confident young woman with long hair, Natasha knows firsthand that Scott’s Branch offers very little compared with other high schools in the state. Last summer, she attended a fine arts camp at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, where she fell in love with the French language, dance, and music. Scott’s Branch offers only Spanish, and one teacher there has had to handle English, drama, and art classes.

Natasha is aware, however, that her generation has it better than those of the past. One of her teachers, Ruby Pinnex, is a Summerton-area native whose cousin, Rebecca Richburg—"Cousin Bec,” she calls her—was a plaintiff in the Briggs case. “We would pick cotton to rent textbooks that were discarded by the white kids,” the 55-year-old Pinnex says about her own high school years in the 1960s. “We paid 20 cents a day for lunch whether you could afford it or not....Today we have free lunch, free books, air-conditioned buildings....We have all the amenities, and we don’t have the motivation. In the past, we had the motivation but not the amenities.”

While Scott’s Branch remains essentially segregated, the same can’t be said of all the area’s public schools. Eight miles north, the county seat of Manning is a different story altogether. The 3,500-student Manning schools, known jointly as Clarendon County School District Two, have a mix of students more closely aligned with the general population. In 1970, after the state ordered integration, white families in Manning refused to abandon the public schools. Some credit state Senator John Land, a white Democrat who has represented the majority-black county since the early 1970s, and his wife, Marie, with being among the first to declare support. She reportedly told a private school supporter that she’d be damned if she was going to send her kids to private school while paying for public ones. Today, Manning schools serve the town of about 4,000 and the surrounding area and enjoy average to above-average test scores, attractive buildings, and relatively strong community support from black and white families alike.

“Integration supposedly started in District One,” says Willian Walker, a retired African American teacher and librarian who has served on Manning’s school board. “But District Two is where integration really took place.”

Manning students notice the difference. High school senior Tina Stukes says a boy she knows who attends Scott’s Branch was flipping through her yearbook when he asked, “There are a lot of white people in your school?” She responded in disbelief, “Yeah.”

One of Manning’s most active student organizations, the Future Farmers of America, goes so far as to encourage black and white students to step into each others’ shoes. It hosts a program, says Manning High senior Harskin Hayes Jr., in which students switch churches for a day each semester, meaning that black students attend mostly white churches, and vice versa. They then meet for lunch to share and discuss their experiences. “It kind of unsegregates things,” he says.

On a cool February evening, playwright Julian Wiles watched as the curtain rose on his own attempt to prompt other South Carolinians into some shoe-swapping of their own. At one point after the lights dimmed, a shadowy figure on the stage drew a gun, then—Crack! Crack!—fired upon a carload of gunmen in self-defense. After years of restraint, Reverend De Laine, an unsung civil rights hero, had finally fired back. When the lights came back up, the audience let out a collective sigh. Even with 100 miles separating Clarendon County and the Dock Street Theatre in the historic port city of Charleston, South Carolina, watching De Laine, R.M. Elliott, Levi Pearson, and Harry Briggs come to life in The Seat of Justice, a play that recounts the Briggs case, made for an emotional evening earlier this year.

‘We would pick cotton to rent textbooks that were discarded by the white kids.’

Rebecca ‘Cousin Bec’ Richburg,
Summerton-area native,
Plaintiff in Briggs v. Elliott.

Wiles, who grew up just across Lake Marion from Summerton, had invited Briggs plaintiffs as well as descendants of both plaintiffs and defendants to the opening-night festivities. One of them, Joe De Laine Jr., spent part of the evening hobnobbing with U.S. Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, who, as governor in the 1960s, had called for the state to give up on school segregation. De Laine and his brother, Brumit, better known as B.B., haven’t lived in Summerton since they were teenagers, but because their father left his heart there, they continue to visit the town to pick up the pieces of their family’s lives.

Another guest was Joseph Elliott, paternal grandson of the late lumberyard owner and school board chairman R.M. Elliott. Afterward, he admitted that the play’s racist characterization of his grandfather was dead-on in many ways. A former school administrator himself in several South Carolina public school systems, Joseph Elliott returned to Summerton in the late 1990s to be headmaster of Clarendon Hall. Now retired, he can look from the front porch of his eighth-generation family home into a clearing where the childhood home of Harry Briggs once stood. Briggs’ mother was Elliott’s maternal grandparents’ maid.

That February night, it gradually became apparent that the relationships between people of different races in a place like Summerton don’t allow for easy solutions to segregation, even if the highest court in the land demands otherwise. As the play drew to an end, actress Marjorie Johnson, who portrayed Charleston civil rights activist Ruby Cornwell, said the following: “It’s time for a new cast of characters to take our place....It’s their story now. A single court ruling could not change every heart and mind....The seat of justice stands waiting.”

‘I see the anniversary as a huge opportunity to bring people together. ... When is there going to be a more opportune time?’

Joseph Elliott ,
Former Headmaster,
Clarendon Hall.

Summerton is not completely stuck in the past. There are signs that residents have become more reflective about the Briggs case and what the town’s future might hold. It’s hard not to reflect, when journalists, scholars, and the simply curious flock to South Carolina and other parts of the South to discuss issues of race 50 years after the Brown decision. Joe De Laine Jr., in fact, was appointed to the Brown v. Board of Education 50th Anniversary Commission by George W. Bush himself. And he and his brother work with the Briggs-De Laine-Pearson Foundation, which hopes to build a combination classroom and historical center. Every year, in the Scott’s Branch High gym, the foundation hosts a banquet to celebrate the Briggs case and raise money, and the group conducts workshops to help parents organize for better schools.

For his part, Joseph Elliott feels the time is ripe for change. “I see the anniversary as a huge opportunity to bring people together,"he says. “When is there going to be a more opportune time?”

Still, the De Laine brothers believe that the quality of Summerton’s schools will largely depend on the role of the state. Without extra guidance, resources, and help for students who need it, the public schools will not succeed, or be fully integrated, in the long run. “If they take the same approach they have the last 50 years,” B.B. De Laine adds, “it’ll be the same for another 50 years.”


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