School & District Management

School Named for Strom Thurmond Provokes Strong Feelings of Pride and Prejudice

A community wrestled with complicated legacy of a high school’s namesake
By Corey Mitchell — January 23, 2019 7 min read
Students in Johnston, S.C., walk past a portrait of the late Strom Thurmond, their school’s namesake and long-time U.S. senator who prominently opposed school integration. After black families decades ago fought to shed Thurmond’s name, a state law passed to make the name permanent.
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Hundreds of teenagers—black, white, Latino, and Asian—walk past a portrait of Strom Thurmond each day at the high school that bears his name.

By their own accounts, the students don’t think much about Thurmond, the former school district superintendent and one of South Carolina’s foremost statesmen and segregationists—or the long-ago fight over the school’s name that roiled this rural community.

The school’s homecoming courts are racially diverse and so is the award-winning mock trial team.

The Rebel Regiment marching band, once renowned for playing “Dixie” at football games, is now led by a black director.

Special Coverage: The Schools That Bear the Names of Segregationists

At one time, the “Rebels” mascot and the song, the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, might have seemed like a good fit for Strom Thurmond High School.

The school was nearly all-white before a late 1960s federal desegregation order brought hundreds of black students to the campus from Edgefield County’s school for “colored children.”.

In the fall of 1970, dozens of those black students quit the marching band, football team, and cheerleading squad in protest against the song, the school’s nickname, and the tradition of waving the Confederate flag at football games

At Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston, S.C., students make their way to class late last year.

Riding the wave of the student protests, local activists filed suit in federal court, demanding a new name for the school because Thurmond was “opposed to the desegregation of the races.” A federal judge closed the case without making a ruling on that central issue, ruling in 1973 that black students “no longer object[ed] to the name of the school.”

Nearly 50 years later, residents are still wrestling with the legacy of Thurmond, the man who crafted the first version of the Southern Manifesto, the rallying cry by Southern lawmakers against the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education—and the separate and unequal education system that still exists at the school named in his honor.

Twenty-two schools, concentrated in eight Southern states, are named for signers of that manifesto; in three of the schools, including Strom Thurmond, at least half the students are black.

Contentious Past

Race remained a complicated subject at Strom Thurmond High for decades after its integration.

In many ways, the school’s story is one that has played out across the South, and the entire country, since school integration began—schools dogged by racial gaps, intentional or not, that can undermine efforts to equitably educate children.

At the 830-student school, white students were twice as likely to be enrolled in honors classes while black students were nearly five times as likely to serve out-of-school suspensions, according to data from the 2015-16 school year, the latest available from the annual federal civil rights data collection.

“Just because they go through the same door doesn’t mean it’s integrated,” said Willie Bright, a black resident of Edgefield County and one of the men behind the federal lawsuit filed nearly five decades ago. “The school’s just as segregated as it ever was.”

Black and white students still attended separate proms until the early 2000s: a school-sponsored event for black students, and a private formal dance for whites.

And it wasn’t until 2003 that the school replaced its old mascot, a cartoonish white man with a wide-brimmed hat and walking cane. Critics complained that it harkened back to the days of plantations and slavery. The mascot now is a Bluetick Coonhound.

At the school, people have found ways to move beyond the barriers that once separated them.

During the public debate over the mascot, the school held onto its nickname, “Rebels,” after a number of supporters, including black students, argued for preserving that portion of the school’s heritage.

“We’re all different races, but I just feel like this is a place where we can all come together and just be one,” said Judson Childress, a 17-year-old senior, who is white.

Louis Scott, the school’s assistant principal, is a 1988 graduate. “We’re called Strom Thurmond High School, but it’s more about the traditions we’ve set in place, academically and athletically,” said Scott, who is black. “It’s less about the man and more about the school.”

For some, it’s difficult to separate the two.

Pride and Prejudice

When the football teams travel for away games, teens from other schools still scoff at the name of Thurmond High, solely because of what its namesake stood for, said Aliyah Griffin, 18, who is black and a cheerleader at the school.

Thurmond, who died in 2003, represented South Carolina for nearly 50 years in the U.S. Senate. Among his predecessors in the Senate and a former governor was Benjamin Tillman, a Thurmond family friend and white supremacist who led a push to disenfranchise black voters in the late 1800s.

Drawing on that Jim Crow tradition, Thurmond joined the Senate and became a staunch opponent of efforts to extend civil rights to blacks. Thurmond’s 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 remains the longest in congressional history.

Thurmond cemented his legacy by defending the segregationist society in which he grew up. Written in 1956, the Southern Manifesto argued that Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that separate schools for black and white children were inherently unequal, was “certain to destroy” public education and undermine “amicable relations between the white and Negro races.”

Prior to Brown, South Carolina law required complete school segregation.

When the federal government ordered full desegregation at Strom Thurmond High, a group of white residents placed their children in a private school, less than a mile down the road. Opening such schools—called segregation academies—was a tactic widely used in South Carolina, and across the South, to avoid sending white kids to racially mixed classrooms.

The school, Wardlaw Academy, is named for Francis Hugh Wardlaw, a local judge who helped draft South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession, declaring the state’s break from the Union at the onset of the Civil War.

A view of a class in progress late last year at Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston, S.C.

Months before he shook Thurmond’s hand at high school graduation, Nathan Gibson, a running back on that 1970 football team, received hate mail at his home after he quit the squad and led a black-student walkout protest over the school’s name and symbols.

“It was a trying period for the area, but you move on,” said Gibson, a retired transportation administrator who now lives in Georgia. “Race relations around there now are better. You can’t go through life having hatred.”

Man of Influence

Much like the residents of Edgefield County, Thurmond has a complex history with race.

Thurmond’s views on integration and civil rights evolved over the years, perhaps as a political necessity, but he carried the secret of his biracial daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, to his grave. He fathered her out of wedlock in his early 20s with a black woman who worked as a household servant for his parents.

“If you think that he ought to be defined by his support of segregation, that’s a very poor way of looking at things,” said Bettis Rainsford, the historian for the Edgefield County Historical Society who graduated from the high school before it was integrated.

“Our whole region had to undergo a metamorphosis–and Senator Thurmond was one of those people.”

Willie Bright, right, was a plaintiff in a 1970 federal lawsuit that sought a name change for Strom Thurmond High, the removal of the Confederate flag, and a ban on the school band playing “Dixie.”

Until his death, Thurmond was a mainstay at his namesake high school’s graduation ceremony, shaking hands and presenting diplomas and scholarships from a fund he established to help students in need, black and white.

The signers of the Southern Manifesto wielded tremendous influence across the South—and Thurmond was no different.

The state’s social studies standards mandate that South Carolina students are taught about Thurmond’s legacy and his role in reshaping the Republican Party as a conservative force in the South.

In March 1986, then-Gov. Richard Riley, a Democrat, signed a bill ensuring Thurmond’s name would remain on the school forever.

The Republican lawmaker that introduced that bill, current U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson, is a Thurmond High School graduate. When a spot on the federal bench opened up several months after Riley signed the bill, Thurmond, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary at the time, oversaw Anderson’s nomination.

If presented with the bill today, Riley said he would likely have second thoughts, given the current debate over Confederate and white supremacist tributes.

“It’s a small state and he was a very popular senator. In 1986, there would have been no reason for me not to sign it,” said Riley, who served as U.S. secretary of education under President Bill Clinton. “Today we’re a little bit different culture. We’re looking at people’s past and the history.”

Education Week Librarians Holly Peele and Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as Pride vs. Prejudice in Schools Honoring Segregationists

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