BISHOPVILLE, S.C. — Two school buses, one yellow and the other white and blue, pull into the rear parking lot of a forgotten building in an antique town, the engines humming as the doors slide open.
A football coach steps off the yellow bus first, into the glow of a cloudless Friday afternoon, and one by one, dozens of coaches and players — mostly black ones from the yellow bus, mostly white ones from the white-and-blue bus — begin filing out. Their voices are mostly silent, and their eyes stay fixed on the back entrance of The Opera House, a brick building opened in the 1890s, meant back then to bring together the people of a still-divided region.
So many decades later, parts of the South have been slow to adjust, hesitant to pack away past division and leave certain memories to gather dust. School segregation officially ended in South Carolina more than 51 years ago, but traces live on. There are two high schools in Lee County, this mostly rural area of about 18,350 residents. The student body of the public high school, Lee Central, is 96 percent black; the private Robert E. Lee Academy — opened in 1965, during the height of the civil rights movement — educates 335 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, and all but 11 of those students are white.
“It’s just divided,” says Danny McMillian, an African American who has spent most of his 51 years in Lee County and is the father of a Lee Central football player. “You stay on your side, I’ll stay on my side.”
Some residents choose to ignore the lingering separation, and others seem comfortable keeping things just as they have been. A growing number, though, have turned to the traditionally colorblind authority of sports — and, in particular, football — to ease leftover tension and, if nothing else, introduce the people on one side of Lee County to those on the other. Although sports teams at South Carolina public schools do not play those at private schools, for the past dozen years, the Lee Central and Robert E. Lee football teams have met for an annual pregame meal.
“The folks that I talk to around town, they’ve said: ‘This is long overdue. We’ve needed something like this,’ ” says Carroll Baker, a local Fellowship of Christian Athletes leader who suggested a dozen years ago that the teams get together.
On this day, a caterer loads gallons of sweet tea and platters of baked chicken onto a cart, pulling it through a rear door and up an elevator. Tables soon will be circled not with familiar faces but with strangers, matched by football position: skill players here, linemen over there. They will sit together where arias once bounced off the brick walls, before time eroded this and other traditions, turning the building into a furniture store, an event space, a relic of a bygone time.
But for now, as the young men find their way inside, they walk along racial lines: whites with other whites, young African Americans talking and joking only with those in matching black and gold jerseys — two groups still keeping their distance. “It has been like that forever,” says Marty Santimaw, the parent of a white Lee Central student.
Five decades ago, a young attorney named Tom Turnipseed traveled South Carolina, listening to its people and nodding his head at their worries.
In the mid-1960s, there was concern among whites, and then there was perceived crisis. “We thought the worst thing in the world was to integrate the schools,” Turnipseed, 78, says now. “We didn’t want to be seen as segregationists, but that’s what we were.”
With desegregation looming, private academies sprung up, charging tuition that many African American families wouldn’t be able to afford. Turnipseed, who says he’s the grandson of a Ku Klux Klan member, was named executive director of the South Carolina Independent Schools Association; he says he met with state officials and researched tax exemptions. He pushed to tone down defiance, preferring to keep the talk centered on smaller class sizes, specialized learning, and how the academies were, at least technically, open to anyone who could afford it.
To many of the county’s black residents, a third of whom live under the poverty line, the fees still seem aimed at creating a dividing line, feeding a perception that in places like this whites and blacks exist in different universes. Robert E. Lee Academy’s annual tuition is $4,080.
In 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the median household income among Lee County’s blacks was $24,048; sending one child to Robert E. Lee would account for more than a sixth of such an income. The median income of a white family was $40,685.
McMillian, a longtime resident, says the races get along better these days — a pregame meal involving both schools’ football teams would’ve been unheard of years ago, he says — but he believes the tuition was meant decades ago to “keep the blacks away,” though few whites today are willing to acknowledge that.
“Everybody knows it, but they don’t want to admit it,” says Turnipseed, a former state senator who refers to himself as a reformed racist; he has spent the last 40 years trying to undo many of the divisive actions of the first half of his life. “I was taught to love your heritage; that’s what you do in South Carolina. But our heritage is racist. It’s just handed down.”
The sun sinks beneath the tree line, and Lee Central players stand near an end zone, on the edge of a darkened cotton field.
It is a Thursday evening, and the week’s final practice is complete. The annual meal with Robert E. Lee’s football team is one day away. “We’re going downtown tomorrow,” Lee Central Coach Baron Turner says, going over the time players should gather the next day in the locker room and which jerseys will be worn. More than four dozen faces look back at him. “Now bow your heads,” Turner says, and the eyes close, fingers curl around helmet facemasks, and each free hand finds itself on a teammate’s shoulder.
Turner, who is black, dismisses the group, and Mitch Santimaw, a 16-year-old wide receiver and tight end, slaps hands with teammates as they call it a day. He arranges his normal ride home with Jalen Simon, a fellow receiver.
Better hurry! someone calls toward Santimaw as he walks slowly off the football field. We’re leeeeaving! Santimaw shakes his head and smiles. “They love me,” he says.
Santimaw is Lee Central’s only white football player, and across town Tyson Kirven, who is biracial, is Robert E. Lee’s only player of color. When Santimaw’s family moved here about a decade ago from Syracuse, N.Y., his father researched the local history. There were two school systems, and soon Marty Santimaw learned why. Tensions had eased during the decades since desegregation, but in Bishopville, it was partly because two cultures had learned to live separately — one side mostly oblivious to the other.
“I don’t think the Lee Central kids sit out there and think about Robert E. Lee, and I don’t think Robert E. Lee kids think about Lee Central kids much,” says David Rankin, the coach at Robert E. Lee.
Although the schools sit less than five miles apart, a social gulf had grown. If a student at one school passed a student from the other school, it was rare they’d acknowledge each other. “We don’t really talk about them, worry about them,” Kirven says. To further separate the schools, the football teams have never played — and, Turner speculates, have never even practiced together.
Marty Santimaw first enrolled his son at Robert E. Lee, figuring the cost was worth a more streamlined education. But when he lost his job, he found himself unable to afford the monthly tuition payments. Mitch transferred to public school, eventually reaching Lee Central as one of a handful of white faces in a school of about 615 students.
He was quiet, Santimaw’s dad says, but then Mitch found his way onto basketball courts and football fields, where athletes are taught to depend on their teammates, no matter their skin color or background. He began inviting his new friends to play ball at his house, reserving a seat in Simon’s overcrowded car, sharing a huddle with those he once assumed he shared little common ground with.
“That’s Mitch. That’s it. Just Mitch,” Turner says, sitting in his office. “We love him just like anybody else.”
During practices and games, the receiver says, he no longer felt different. Santimaw’s new friends refer to him now as “White Lightning.” Kirven, 17, says his experience has been similar: Football has helped him to fit in, to dial back the distant perceptions of other races, to laugh instead of fight when a teammate teases Kirven about eating fried chicken. “They’ve just gotten used to me, I guess,” he says with a smile.
In the distance on this Thursday evening, the parking lot is coming alive with red dots — taillights. Mitch notices them. Before he goes, he makes one last point. “I know every single player on this field has each other’s backs. We all love each other. We’re a family. We’re a team,” he says, sprinting away a moment later to catch his ride.
The hope a dozen years ago, Baker says now, was to bring two groups together and, through the framework of football and Christian faith, sit them down and see what happened.
“It wasn’t a thing of black or white,” Baker says he has learned. “It was that they just didn’t know each other.”
Baker, a Lee County native who attended Robert E. Lee during the 1970s, became an area representative in 2002 of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a sports ministry that works alongside athletes and coaches. Almost immediately, he met with Rankin and Turner, proposing an annual pregame meal that, even for a couple hours, brought together the county’s two high school football teams. The coaches liked it, and supporters wondered why it had taken so long to stir such a simple idea. “It’s always seemed like the right thing to do,” Baker says.
After a few years of holding the dinners, Baker began seeing signs — albeit small — of progress, even after the evening programs ended and the teams went their separate ways for the next 364 days. He and the coaches began thinking that, if past generations emphasized separation, creating this environment, what would be the priorities of the next wave?
“Somewhere in the politics of this town, they’re going to meet up,” Rankin says of the young people. “At least they’ve got an idea of who’s who.”
They walk into The Opera House, keeping their eyes forward. The players from Robert E. Lee climb the stairs first, followed by those from Lee Central.
They stay quiet, staying in their lanes, following the footsteps of the past. They reach the second-floor performance hall, pull chairs from under tables, and sit and say nothing. Eyes wander, looking for familiar faces. A few players stare at their phones. An uncomfortable minute or so passes, and then without announcement, DaNarius McMillian, Danny McMillian’s son and a Lee Central linebacker and place kicker, stands and reaches a hand across the table, and a Robert E. Lee freshman named Jamie Walker leans forward and shakes it.
Everyone at the table begins greeting each other, exchanging names and asking about their teams.
“What’s y’all’s record?” McMillian asks Walker Gainey, a Robert E. Lee offensive lineman seated at his left, and soon they are chattering about games, the fact that Robert E. Lee runs a spread offense and a base 4-3 defense, and how about that, because those are the same formations Lee Central uses. They discover that they know some of the same people and that, though they seemingly come from different places, they speak the same language.
“He’ll throw them wheel routes,” Lee Central wide receiver Dayrice Austin tells Robert E. Lee quarterback Bryce Barrett.
“The deep stuff?” Barrett says.
“Like a fade.”
“Can he throw it far? About 50?”
Barrett nods. “That’s pretty good,” he says.
No one here believes moments like this will fully erase the county’s divide. But it seems like a start: As minutes turn to hours, the players talk sports and clear their plates, stand together in line to get seconds. Then they return to the tables and keep chatting, forgetting as they talk football that, the boundaries relaxed from even a few minutes earlier, they are talking. “The kinds of things I would hope to see happen,” Baker says. “Little steps, yes. Just breaking the ice, taking the little steps, acknowledging each other.”
The coaches discuss doing this more often, maybe participating in a summer football tournament or scheduling a joint workout. When the food is gone and the plates are cleared, guest speaker and former Auburn football player Foster Christy having completed his final remarks, the time has come to separate once again.
The players walk down the steps, this time a few Robert E. Lee players blended with the group from Lee Central, and when they reach the rear parking lot and head for the buses, a few of them slap hands and exchange phone numbers. Austin, the Lee Central wide receiver, jumps into the Robert E. Lee bus: “Wait for me! Wait for me!” he shouts, waving his arms and smiling. Kirven pushes his elbows through a window, watching the young men who pass, a few of them wishing each other good luck and others telling the others that maybe they’d see them again soon.