Desegregating Beaufort: A look back 50 years after Brown v. Board

147875 articles in the archive and more added every day

Desegregating Beaufort: A look back 50 years after Brown v. Board

By CRYSTAL STREUBER<br>Gazette staff writer
Published Sunday, May 16, 2004 in The Island Packet  |  2504 Words  |  /BeaufortGazette/local_news

May 20, 1954, seemed like a typical day in Beaufort County in the 1950s.'
A photo of students who won an essay contest stretched across The Beaufort Gazette's front page. Beaufort High School announced the date for its graduation ceremony. Port Royal settled a dispute over a boundary line. The Breeze Theatre on Bay Street featured Rock Hudson and Donna Reed in "Gun Fury."'
Nowhere on the front page of Beaufort's local newspaper was it mentioned that three days earlier the U.S. Supreme Court had sparked a chain of events that would forever change South Carolina and the nation. The May 17, 1954, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision that outlawed racial segregation in schools was buried in that week's Gazette, a news decision unfathomable 50 years later.'
An editorial on Page Two titled "Whither now?" lamented the court's unanimous decision to end the "separate but equal" education standard that had been the nation's norm for more than a half century. It also urged state lawmakers to uphold a referendum in which state residents voted to close schools, rather than integrate.'
The only other mention of the issue was an advertisement for then-gubernatorial candidate Lester Bates, who was "four-square for segregation."'
Although it would take 16 years before the mandate of Brown v. Board began to be realized in Beaufort County, the battle for educational equality began long before it seemed possible in a region entrenched in social segregation. '
A group of black parents in the heart of South Carolina began the fight in 1948, seeking parity for their children in a lawsuit that would become the cornerstone of the five cases bundled in the Supreme Court's Brown decision. '
But it wasn't until 1970 that mandatory integration took hold in the county. That year, teenagers from the all-black Robert Smalls and St. Helena high schools were bussed to Beaufort High School, which was so crowded it split the day into dual sessions. Elementary and middle schools that had been all black for years admitted their first white students.'
<strong>The long road</strong>'
The story of Brown began years before Linda Brown's father fought for her right to attend an all-white Topeka elementary school. And it began in the tiny Clarendon County town of Summerton, where 24 black parents fed up with the poor quality of their children's education sued the Summerton school district in 1950. '
The suit, spearheaded by parent Harry Briggs and minister Joseph DeLaine, fought for buses for black children, who walked many miles to and from school while white children had transportation, and for better facilities. Scott's Branch School in Summerton was heated by a wood stove and lit with kerosene lamps. Black teachers in the county were paid about a third of what white teachers received and per-pupil spending was just as unequal.'
The case was against Summerton school board Chairman R.W. Elliott, who told parents, "We ain't got no money to buy a bus for your nigger children," according to University of South Carolina history professor Walter Edgar's book, "South Carolina: A History."'
Summerton residents lost the Briggs v. Elliott case in 1951. Judge Matthew Perry, the South's first black federal district judge, sat in the Charleston court room to hear the ruling, fresh out of law school.'
"These parents simply wanted parity for their children," Perry said. "Lawyers transformed it into an all-out attack on South Carolina's mandated racially segregated school system."'
The suit became one of five segregation cases appealed to the Supreme Court. Other cases were from Delaware, Virginia, Kansas and the District of Columbia.'
"The (South Carolina) component of those five cases was the centerpiece case," Perry said.'
Although the Brown case was decided in 1954, and in 1955 the court ordered schools to desegregate "with all deliberate speed," South Carolina resisted the change for years.'
"It obviously meant different things to different people," Alan Wieder, a University of South Carolina educational psychology professor, said of the "deliberate speed" mandate. "For some people that meant many years ago that it was long overdue, and for others it meant never. Then there were people who said we can do it on our own time."'
Even before the Brown decision, state lawmakers were looking for ways to prevent integration. '
In 1951, the General Assembly created a committee that recommended the referendum in which South Carolina voters supported eliminating the public school system. '
In 1952, the "Committee of '52," a group of state leaders, affirmed the importance of segregated schools.'
In 1955, a year after the Supreme Court's Brown ruling, white citizens councils that worked against desegregation sprung up across the state. '
In 1956, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond spoke out for segregation in a "Declaration of Southern Principles," a document that condemned the Brown decision and was signed by 19 of the South's 22 senators and 82 of its 106 House members. '
And in 1957, Thurmond filibustered for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes to stall a civil rights bill.'
In Beaufort County, the fight against segregation wasn't as loud or violent as in other parts of the South, but it was still palpable, many who lived through it say. Local black students didn't have the option of attending school with whites until 1964, when the local school board started a system called "freedom of choice."'
<strong>Freedom of choice</strong>'
It was Aug. 31, 1964. A sixth-grader named Craig Washington entered all-white Beaufort Elementary, following his father through the all-white crowds clustered around the front door to become the school's first black student. Across town, his brother Rowland took the first steps for black students into Beaufort High School.'
"If you knew the conditions of Robert Smalls then -- our textbooks were five to 10 years old by the time we got them," Craig Washington said of why he chose to transfer from all-black Robert Smalls Elementary. "If you've never lived through that type of segregation, there's no way to explain it."'
The Washington brothers and one other student made history by announcing their intentions to integrate in July 1964. But when school started a month later, six more black students enrolled in previously all-white schools. It was the first year for "freedom of choice," the local school board's belated response to the Brown decision.'
"In the 1960s, there were small changes," said Beaufort County School District Superintendent Herman Gaither.'
A teacher at Robert Smalls High at the time, Gaither said the choice plan was unfair because it caused a one-way integration. No white students chose to attend black schools.'
"There was a lot more awareness. Everyone knew integration was coming. They were trying to see if we could do it through osmosis," Gaither said.'
Initial integration went relatively smoothly in Beaufort. But black students who lived through it say the period had its share of problems.'
"Beaufort is fortunate," a Gazette editorial claimed in September 1964, a few days after school started. "We have had no looting, vandalism or destruction. We have no unrest or hatred. ... We can keep it this way if all our citizens will work diligently with the problems that are sure to arise."'
Black students did face problems as they integrated into previously all-white schools. Carolyn Banner, now director of student services at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, transferred to all-white Beaufort Junior High from an all-black elementary school in 1965.'
"A day did not go by that I didn't feel that I wasn't safe. I never felt like I belonged," Banner said. "There was no one there who was really on your side. It was like they were (integrating) because they had to, and they didn't have to like it."'
Although Washington faced some violence from white students during his first year at Beaufort Elementary, he remembers the teachers and principal who made his time there easier.'
"A lot of people took a lot of care about what they were doing," he said. "They may not have liked it, but they cared enough to do a professional job."'
Many white students had problems with the change, said local author Pat Conroy, who graduated from Beaufort High in 1963 and came back to teach there in 1967.'
"I remember the question that made the black kids the angriest," Conroy said. "What are you doing at my school?"'
Black and white students were getting used to each other during the late '60s, Conroy said. White and black girls started copying fashion trends from each other and listening to each other's music. But many teachers were not so open-minded.'
"Many of the white teachers were racist. They simply grew up that way," Conroy said. "And the black kids knew it."'
Some Beaufort residents actively resisted desegregation. Beaufort Academy was started in 1965 as one of many private schools established during what some call the South's "white flight" movement, when white parents took their children out of public schools. The academy had about 200 students its first year in first through eighth grades, drawing from a public school system of about 8,000 students.'
"The reaction of adults (to integration) was to just write it off -- forget about public schools," Gaither said. "Some started the white flight."'
Voluntary integration was not enough to meet the demands of the Brown ruling, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare told the school district in September 1965. The district spent the next five years trying to comply, writing and rewriting integration plans.'
Finally in 1969 the school board adopted a plan to close the two black high schools on St. Helena Island and in Beaufort, force all high-schoolers to attend formerly all-white Beaufort High and shift enrollment to integrate the other schools. The plan was approved and in the 1970-71 school year, 16 years after the high court's Brown decision, Beaufort County schools desegregated completely.'
<strong>Under-education </strong>'
Ask anyone who was at Beaufort High School during the early 1970s about their high school years and two words come to mind: double sessions.'
From 1970 to 1973 Beaufort High was the only high school in northern Beaufort County, and black and white students from Pocotaligo to Lands End were bussed there in an attempt to integrate schools. Robert Smalls and St. Helena high schools, the longtime alma maters for northern county black students, were turned into junior high schools. Beaufort High became a testing ground for equality as sports teams, clubs and classes tried to combine both races fairly.'
"I remember the first time I heard they were going to double sessions. I said, 'They'll never do that,'" Gaither said of the turbulent 1970-71 school year. "Even though we were 15 years after Brown, nothing had changed for us. 1970 was the first year things were remarkably different."'
Gaither called the three years of double sessions "under-education for everyone." Students attended school in four-and-a-half-hour shifts. Juniors, seniors and most athletes attended in the morning and sophomores went in the afternoon.'
Combining three high schools and their diverse populations was complicated. Student councils from the three schools had to settle the school's name, mascot and colors. The Beaufort High red and white Tidal Waves became the Beaufort High green and white Eagles, taking the colors from Robert Smalls and the mascot from St. Helena.'
"It was a lot more crowded," said Donald Gruel, who was on the student council at Beaufort High the year before integration and is now principal of Mossy Oaks Elementary. "I think, academically, we suffered more. I received a good education, but now it would have been different."'
A flip through the 1971 Beaufort High yearbook shows how hard school staff worked toward racial balance and harmony. Most athletic teams had a black and white coach and a black and white captain. Those efforts paid off, Banner, Gruel, Gaither and others said. It was in sports where students were most easily recognized for their skill, not their skin color.'
"In athletics, we had absolutely no problem," Gaither said. "Some of those teams just made the school work. On the ball field it wasn't about what color you were."'
Black students, especially seniors, resented being moved from their home school, Banner said. After a year at all-white Beaufort Junior High in 1965 she attended St. Helena High until her senior year, when integration was made mandatory. She was the only black cheerleader at Beaufort High that year, was captain of the squad and co-captain of the girl's basketball team.'
"People asked why did we have to be the ones to go. Why can't the white kids come here? The senior experience was not something I enjoyed. You knew nobody wanted you there," Banner said. "You didn't feel like a senior. You were just there. It was so confusing."'
White students also lost something that year, said Connie Hipp, who graduated from Beaufort High in 1969, the last year before the upheaval of integration.'
"You kind of gave up your school colors, but it was appropriate to do so," she said. "They lost their school and their colors, too. The only loss I felt was we were no longer the Tidal Waves."'
Moving to Beaufort High meant more than losing school colors to black students, Gaither said. It meant losing a community. Robert Smalls was close-knit, and staff had high expectations for students. When they mixed with white students, with unfamiliar teachers, it was easy to get lost in the shuffle.'
Today, the communities of Beaufort High and other local schools are more colorblind than they were 30 years ago. Students cross the black-white divide with more ease. The story of local residents who struggled for equal education is on The Gazette's front page. There are no advertisements supporting segregation.'
Yet the goals of Brown v. Board are not fully realized. The county's black students score consistently lower on state achievement tests than their white classmates. Educators in Beaufort County and across the nation are struggling to find solutions.'
Perhaps Banner, now in the education field herself, sets the best example. She overcame the trying years of integration and recently earned a doctoral degree.'
"Not everything is going to be easy. You have to know you can do it," she said. "I followed through in spite of obstacles.'
"Coming from (St. Helena), where you were nurtured, you were in another environment where there were unknown barriers you didn't have any control over," Banner said. "But you still had to persevere."