50 Years After Brown
Schools and Lives Are Still Separate
In Town That Helped Trigger Ruling, The Desegregation Revolution Fizzled
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2004; Page A01
SUMMERTON, S.C. -- In the late 1940s a slim, bespectacled preacher named Joseph A. DeLaine became outraged that the children of farmers who lived on the cotton plantations down by the Santee River had to walk two hours each way to an all-black school. He persuaded one of his parishioners to file a lawsuit seeking a school bus.
That petition eventually grew into a demand for school desegregation, and this small town's dispute became the foundation of the omnibus Supreme Court case known as Brown v. Board of Education. On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced the court's decision that the doctrine of "separate but equal" had no place in U.S. public schools. It was a ruling that helped trigger the civil rights revolution -- and change the face of America forever.
But not the place where the revolution began.
Fifty years later, white children and black children in Summerton still lead largely separate lives. Scott's Branch High School, a segregated, all-black school in 1954, is still more than 98 percent African American. Its 480 students include just six whites and two Hispanics.
Rather than permit their children to be educated with blacks, most white families in Summerton pulled them out of the public school system in 1970 after losing a rearguard fight against integration. Today, most whites send their children to Clarendon Hall, a private Christian academy founded in 1965.
Of the five school districts associated with the Brown case, Summerton is the only one where desegregation never really got off the ground. Although the town is hardly representative of the South, whose schools are generally more integrated than the rest of the country's, its racial divisions are echoed in dozens of heavily black counties where resistance to Brown was strongest.
According to the Harvard Civil Rights Project, one in eight southern black students attends a school that is 99 percent black. About a third attend schools that are at least 90 percent minority. In the Northeast, by contrast, more than half of blacks attend such schools.
The gulf between blacks and whites encompasses almost every aspect of life in Summerton. The two communities have their own churches, barber shops and stores. Blacks still boycott the Summerton Diner because of an ugly racial incident there several decades ago. Whites still have little reason to venture beyond the central traffic light that once marked the boundary between white and black Summerton.
The differences extend to the way black and white students are marking the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. At Clarendon Hall, students are taking little notice of the anniversary and seem barely aware of Summerton's ground-breaking role in the civil rights movement. Students at Scott's Branch High have researched the Supreme Court decision extensively and talk about it in class. Some have also participated in an essay-writing contest, interviewing family members who were involved in the school integration battles.
Coming a Long Way
The DeLaine family was forced to flee Summerton soon after the Supreme Court announced its Brown decision. Their house was burned down twice, and the family received repeated death threats from outraged whites. Joseph DeLaine Jr. grew up in New Jersey, where he became a pharmaceutical executive, and retired to North Carolina. But he has kept in touch with people in Summerton, and returned recently to meet with students at Scott's Branch High.
The school is a glistening $20 million facility on a treeless campus at the edge of town. With its modern, faceless exterior, it could pass for any high school in any U.S. city.
It is a world removed from the ramshackle school that DeLaine attended more than half a century ago, with its outdoor toilets and leaky roofs. In the old Scott's Branch school, students worked from cast-off textbooks and huddled around a potbellied stove to keep warm in winter. The new school has heated classrooms, a library, a gymnasium and a computer lab.
DeLaine's talk with the students soon turned to Briggs v. Elliott, the 1949 lawsuit alleging appalling conditions at Scott's Branch High that grew out of the petition for a school bus and later became part of Brown v. Board. He asked whether the black petitioners achieved their aims.
Mostly yes, replied a slender girl in tight blue jeans. Cynthia Pershia has researched the history of the case, which pitted a black garage mechanic named Harry Briggs against Roderick W. Elliott, the chairman of the all-white school board. What the petitioners were after originally, Pershia said, was facilities equal to those enjoyed by whites. "They achieved their goal," she said.
The demand for integrated schools was tacked on later, at the insistence of Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers from the NAACP.
Jonathan Henry, whose grandfather was one of the 20 plaintiffs in Briggs, pointed out that nobody has to walk nine miles to school any more. This produces murmurs of dissent from other students.
"The only thing we really achieved was that we now get to school in a bus," said John Briggs, grandnephew of the lead petitioner. "Schools are still not integrated in Summerton."
As part of the run-up to the Brown anniversary, Scott's Branch students took buses out to the rural community of Davis Station to reenact the two-hour hike that some of their forebears were obliged to take to school. They started off from the home of Levi Pearson, the poor, black farmer who petitioned the school board for a bus for his children in 1947.
From his front porch, Ferdinand Pearson, 80, can see the yellow school buses travel up and down a road named in honor of his father, Levi. When he was a boy, he walked seven miles to school in the Clarendon county seat of Manning. His younger brothers and sisters walked nine miles in the opposite direction, to Summerton. By the time they got there, they were frequently tired, wet and hungry.
"We've come a long way since those days, but it's not over yet," said Pearson, who compared the Brown decision to "Moses leading his children out of Egypt." He said white retaliation was immediate. Banks denied his father credit for seed and fertilizers after he handed in his petition for the school bus.
It was not until 1965, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, that Summerton schools made any attempt at integration. As long as only a token number of blacks were admitted to Summerton High, most whites were willing to stay. But when it became clear, in 1970, that the drive for integration was serious, white families pulled their children out en masse, said Leola Parks, one of the first blacks admitted to the school.
"They just took off and told us they would not be coming back," said Parks, who now works as assistant to the school superintendent.
After the white exodus, Summerton High was closed and remained in disrepair for many years. It has since been renovated and now serves as the headquarters of a school district that is 99 percent African American and has seen a long line of superintendents come and go. The latest is Clarence E. Willie, appointed last year after 22 years with the Marines. He is not optimistic about whites returning to his schools anytime soon.
"When the whites left, it created an imbalance that we haven't been able to overcome, but we can't do much about that now," he said. "My job is to provide the best education we can to the children who are enrolled in the system right now."
Although there has been some improvement in standardized test scores since Willie took over, they are still dismal when compared with many other South Carolina schools. DeLaine believes that he got "a better education" in many ways than his modern-day counterparts, largely because of the commitment of the all-black teaching staff, who had strong ties to the local community. These days, he said, few African Americans want to pursue a teaching career in "a dead end" such as Summerton.
"If you have any ambition, you have to leave," said Beatrice Rivers, who caught the "first bus out of town" after graduating from Scott's Branch High in 1955 and only recently returned after a long career with the federal government in Washington.
Continuing Racial Divide
At Clarendon Hall, headmaster Michael Connors is explaining why many Summerton residents prefer to send their children to a private, predominantly white institution: "We have small class sizes, so our students get a lot of attention. We have a Christian environment. And we don't have a lot of discipline problems."
Parents pay tuition of as much as $2,645 to send their children to Clarendon Hall, which consists of several modest, one-story buildings beneath towering pine trees. The 275 students in the school include just five African Americans. Teacher salaries are generally lower than in the Summerton public schools. Students seem uncomfortable talking about the black schools down the road.
Racial divisions still run deep in Summerton, acknowledged Connors, who spent most of his life in New York, where he went to integrated schools. He mentioned a basketball jamboree that took place at Scott's Branch school in November 2000, soon after he moved to Summerton. He thought nothing of accepting an invitation for his players to take part in the scrimmage, until he arrived and found reporters and TV crews milling around the Scott's Branch gymnasium.
"I was astounded," Connors said. The Scott's Branch coach, Gunter Sweat, eventually took him aside and explained that it was the first time in more than three decades that students from Scott's Branch and Clarendon Hall had played basketball against each other. Connors said he doesn't like to see "a black Summerton and a white Summerton," but bringing the two communities together is no easy task.
According to Charles Clotfelter, a professor of economics at Duke University, the enrollment of white students in private schools tends to leap dramatically in counties in which the nonwhite population is in the majority. The ratio of blacks to whites in Summerton is about 4 to 1.
But demographics do not explain everything. In neighboring Manning, the schools are much more integrated, partly because of the example set by state Sen. John Land, who kept his children in the public schools. Joseph Elliott, the grandson of the school board chairman who refused to provide black students with a bus, believes this is a major reason that Manning is thriving economically while Summerton has become "a dead end" kind of a place.
Since the basketball scrimmage, other attempts have been made to bridge the racial divide, none particularly successful. Elliott set up a biracial committee to revitalize downtown Summerton and commemorate the 50th anniversary of Briggs v. Elliott in a fitting manner. It collapsed after a few sessions because of a lack of interest.
A retired teacher and former headmaster of Clarendon Hall, Elliott is unwilling to condemn his "big, kind and strong" grandfather, whose attitudes reflected those of the "Jim Crow world" in which he grew up. But he thinks Summerton whites need to find a way to formally acknowledge the courage of Levi Pearson, Harry Briggs and other black petitioners who risked everything to stand up to the town's white establishment.
"This is our last, best hope," he said of the 50th anniversary of Briggs's Supreme Court victory over his grandfather. Seated on the porch of his 200-year-old home, looking out over the plantation where Briggs was born and raised, he added: "We have waited half a century to do this, and we don't have any more time."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company