America’s most famous school desegregation cases didn’t begin in Topeka, Kansas. The five cases that were consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas actually began in rural Clarendon County, South Carolina.
The first case originated in a little town called Summerton and the surrounding flat farmland in the deep east-central part of the state.
Led by a country preacher and schoolteacher named Joseph De Laine, African-American families challenged the community’s white establishment and Southern way of life, and would end up changing the world. Yet even though these families paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the integration of public institutions throughout the South and other parts of the country, in the end they largely failed to change the plight of black schoolchildren in their own town. Fifty years after the Brown decision, the schools in Summerton remain almost completely segregated by race. This has helped keep generations of black residents undereducated and the town’s economy suspended in time.
Inspired by a speech he heard in Columbia by the state NAACP president, the Rev. De Laine returned home to Summerton in 1947 determined to challenge how local black children were educated in Clarendon County–in deplorable old buildings with outdated textbooks. First, De Laine convinced a farmer named Levi Pearson from a nearby crossroads called Davis Station to file a lawsuit demanding that local school leaders pay for repairs on a school bus that transported black children from the distant countryside into Summerton for high school. The case was dismissed on a technicality, but laid the groundwork for what would become Briggs v. Elliott–the first of the Brown cases.
Black parents in Summerton, meanwhile, had grown tired of a high school principal they believed was incompetent and corrupt. They accused the man of charging improper fees for diplomas and for providing academic courses that didn’t even compare favorably with black schools in neighboring areas. The group wanted the principal fired, and they questioned in meetings at local churches why their school system had to be lacking in every way. At one of those organizing meetings, the parents convinced De Laine to take charge of their movement, records show. Later, he and several key plaintiffs in the case met with a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. One night in 1949, parents and students gathered in Summerton at the home of gas-station attendant Harry Briggs and his wife, Eliza, a motel housekeeper, to sign a petition that would land on the steps of the Supreme Court.
Once the Briggs case gained national publicity, tensions began to run high in Summerton. Most of the parents who signed on to the case lost their jobs or were threatened with firings, and some were evicted from their tenant homes or sharecropper land. De Laine’s own remarkable story may be familiar to scholars and students of the civil rights movement, but remains largely unknown even to many South Carolinians. His family’s home in Summerton was torched, the family believes, and white firefighters allowed it to burn as horrified black residents watched.
Later, after the Brown decision, a suspicious fire broke out at De Laine’s church in Lake City. A few days later, drive-by gunmen attacked the family’s new home in Lake City. De Laine fired back that night in 1955, wounding some of the men in the car. He fled the same night to Florence, and the next day traveled to New York City, where he would become a pastor in Queens and where he remained, despite South Carolina’s unsuccessful attempts to extradite him to face five charges of assault and battery with intent to kill. He led churches in the city and in Buffalo before retiring to Charlotte, North Carolina. He returned to his native South Carolina and Clarendon County only as a fugitive, and in secret–including one visit for his mother’s funeral, relatives say. De Laine would be posthumously pardoned in 2000, and federal lawmakers recently voted to award him the Congressional Gold Medal.
Other families left Summerton for economic reasons. Faced with poverty even in better times, with their involvement in the Briggs case they incurred the wrath of powerful local white leaders who could cost them their livelihoods. White Citizens’ Councils appeared; to this day, white residents of Summerton remember which businesses had the proper stickers on their windows or doors that signified supportive owners. Many of the families involved in Briggs moved north as a result of job losses directly linked to the case, along with losses of property, credit at cotton gins or other local businesses, and real threats of violence. Harry and Eliza Briggs lost their jobs and moved north. Others went to Philadelphia or Washington, DC, where jobs were more plentiful and oppression less severe.
Given this hostile atmosphere, Summerton might seem an unlikely birthplace of the legal movement toward equal educational rights for African-Americans. Cases were stirring in Kansas, Virginia, Delaware and Washington, DC–the other sites involved in Brown at the Supreme Court level–and any of those cases could have come first. Summerton was unique, however, in that the local people had a dynamic, educated and spiritually motivated leader in De Laine, and he was determined to force change in the county where he had been born and raised.
De Laine won access to Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights lawyers and was successful in pressing the Briggs case nationally through Brown. After losing the case in federal court, Marshall broadened the suit into a desegregation case that held more promise, and Briggs found its footing and a path to the Supreme Court. Locally, however, the case left a more complicated legacy. When De Laine was driven from thestate, and other families were forced to flee or decided to leave when violence and threats became too much, the town lost its key African-American leaders and many ambitious young people who might have carried on the minister’s fight for equality. Instead, the departures and isolation that followed the backlash to Briggs and Brown did little to halt school segregation in Summerton.
When much of South Carolina finally bowed to court-ordered school integration in 1970, virtually all the white students in Summerton transferred into a private school opened just for them, sponsored by a local Southern Baptist church. That private school, called Clarendon Hall, almost exclusively enrolls white students to this day, while public schools in Summerton enroll African-Americans almost exclusively. Other rural, majority-black towns and counties in South Carolina and neighboring states have seen much the same white flight from public schools, although white flight was especially pronounced in Summerton from the beginning.
As a result, this town of only 1,000 residents now operates with essentially two separate school systems for white and black children. In the three public schools known collectively as Clarendon County School District One, about two dozen of the roughly 1,200 students are white. At the private school, Clarendon Hall, five of the school’s 275 students are black, according to a recent count. Those five students are among the private school’s first African-American students ever to enroll; the first black students didn’t start there until the twenty-first century had begun.
The disparity between the quality of education that Summerton provides its black and white children is apparent. Clarendon One traditionally has been one of the state’s worst school districts in terms of student test scores and other measures. This doesn’t mean gifted students and teachers haven’t been there; nor does it mean some programs in the schools haven’t been successful. Overall results tell a dismal story, however: Nearly half the ninth graders in Summerton do not graduate four years later, according to state data. Last year’s average SAT score at Scott’s Branch High School was 761–the lowest average of any high school in South Carolina and hundreds of points lower than state and national averages.
Still, there are a few signs of progress. Earlier this school year, the town’s public elementary school, St. Paul Primary School, saw major gains in test scores. Scott’s Branch High last year saw double-digit gains in the percentage of students passing the state’s high school exit exam on their first try. School leaders believe that with better motivation, increased training for teachers and help from state-sponsored academic coaches, scores will continue to rise. St. Paul has made distinct aesthetic improvements, and local officials want to replace the school’s cramped, aging building with a new campus.
In general, though, the largely African-American public school system has little ability to raise extra money to improve itself. The school district must rely on local property taxes to supplement state funding for schools, which is currently under court challenge from rural school districts, including Clarendon One. That court case is being heard this year, just six miles from Summerton in the county seat of Manning, where the schools are far more integrated. Since few businesses exist in the Summerton area, there is little to tax beyond the property owners, who pay some of the state’s highest tax rates (although several years ago the town did pass its first-ever tax increase for school buildings, with the support of some white taxpayers, which helped fund the construction of Scott’s Branch High School).
Clarendon Hall, the private school, offers more of its students a chance to attend college or pursue professional careers, but its test scores don’t compare well with more reputable preparatory academies, even ones in South Carolina. The average SAT score, for example,is substantially better than the average at Scott’s Branch, but still has rated below the national average. While administrators say most of Clarendon Hall’s graduates proceed directly to college, and while parents may be attracted by more substantial music and art programs that the public schools cannot always match, the private school’s students miss out on interaction with students and teachers of different backgrounds. The small size of the campus helps more students participate in athletics and other activities, but Clarendon Hall’s size and limited budget keep teacher salaries around $17,000 a year, and there are no health benefits, making teacher recruitment and retention a serious issue. Even the struggling public schools in Summerton pay teachers more.
Segregation in the town reaches beyond the schools. Of course, many US cities and suburbs have problems with residential and educational segregation. But while settings in education, commerce and houses of worship are becoming more integrated in some South Carolina communities and in suburban and urban areas of the American South, people in Summerton remain racially separated, and some close observers strongly suggest that this is rooted in the tension around the school desegregation case.
Joseph Elliott, a grandson of R.M. Elliott, the white school board chairman in Summerton who was the lead defendant in the Supreme Court case, says he can’t even talk about the ordeal with some of his neighbors and friends because of his more moderate views. After a career in public schools in more integrated parts of the state, he became headmaster at Clarendon Hall. He recalls that before his retirement three years ago, he was stunned when some white parents objected to the all-white school playing its first-ever basketball game against Scott’s Branch High, just up the road.
As the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown decision arrives, Summerton is gaining notoriety. There is evidence South Carolinians are more willing to reflect on the school desegregation case and its meaning, and on issues of race and ethnicity. Universities are holding symposiums and lectures about the case. Newspapers that have reflected little on the case in the past are publishing special sections on Summerton. A play about the Summerton struggle and some of its key figures, The Seat of Justice, debuted in February at Charleston’s historic Dock Street Theatre, featuring a remarkably blunt portrayal of white town leaders in Summerton and state officials from the era, including lawyer Robert Figg, once an aide to Strom Thurmond.
Yet visitors to Summerton without prior knowledge of the Briggs case would find little evidence of it in the community today. While a historical museum would be an appropriate memorial to the families involved in the case–not to mention a valuable educational resource and tourist draw for those traveling nearby Interstate 95–the town has no such exhibit or even substantial monument marking the case. The only signs that Summerton is where the Brown cases began are a state historical marker in disrepair at Liberty Hill African Methodist Episcopal Church outside Summerton (where De Laine’s father was a longtime minister and several plaintiffs were members and are buried), and a brick-and-concrete marker in front of the old Scott’s Branch High School, now the town’s public middle school, across from the lot where the De Laine home stood before the fire.
This spring, some of Summerton’s residents will celebrate the legacy of the Rev. De Laine and others who were part of Briggs v. Elliott. There will be a parade, guest speakers and the annual fundraising banquet for the Briggs-De Laine-Pearson Foundation, a group that hopes to raise money for a visitor center and parenting classes.
Once this year’s events have passed, Summerton will return to its struggle with history. How the residents decide to proceed–with regard to politics, social life and the dual education system that helps define life in the town–will define more clearly the legacy of the Briggs case. The Rev. De Laine and his followers somehow had more clarity in the 1940s, pressed into service by the tension of the times and bolstered by the courage that Summerton would do well to remember today.
Alan Richard writes about the South and rural America for Education Week, the leading national K-12 education newspaper. A South Carolina native and former journalist there, he is writing a book about Summerton’s role in the Brown v. Board cases, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the court decision.