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determined to challenge how local black children were educated in Clarendon County–in deplorable old buildings with outdated textbooks.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.