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Hoping to rewrite American history: Historic placards bring renewed attention to SC’s role in ending school segregation

Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 9:54 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - On your way to Myrtle Beach or Charleston, you may have skirted by or gone through Clarendon County, South Carolina.

What you probably didn’t realize is that you were going past a place that changed the future for generations to come. It was the place that was the beginning of the end of segregation in our schools.

Last month, historical markers were finally put up to honor the bravery of community members who against all odds, fought to give their kids an equal education.

Historic placards in South Carolina bring attention to decades-old victories connected to education and segregation. The Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board ruling was originally designed to level the playing field at places of learning.

It clearly had a national impact, but the early roots of the case can be traced to schools lacking the basics across the Palmetto state.

“And one of the most important components of Brown versus Board was Briggs versus Elliott of South Carolina,” Dr. Bobby Donaldson, a history professor at the University of South Carolina said.

Progress in the rural community of Clarendon County has been on the radar of USC History professor Bobby Donaldson for years.

“This was the case that seen was by lawyers as the most glaring of cases. The most compelling of cases that showed the disparities between black and white schools, and the educational experience between black and white students,” Donaldson added.

Disparities clearly and loudly amplified in a separate, but equal environment went beyond the classroom and even dictated a different school year calendar for black students, according to South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn.

“If you’re in rural South Carolina, it was not all that unusual for you to have a full or five month school year by law,” Clyburn said. “You didn’t go to school until all the cotton was gathered out of the fields.”

In his published works, civil rights photographer Cecil Williams of Orangeburg has chronicled abject conditions of poverty connected to African American schools.

He recalls how fighting for better surroundings put many black families at risk.

“Everyone connected to the Briggs case really they were fired from their jobs. They had to uproot their families. They had to leave South Carolina,” he said.

Among those forced to leave the state was Reverend J.A. Delaine. He was the community leader who supported the efforts of Harry and Eliza Briggs to sue school superintendent R.M. Elliott.

“The focus was probably on education, but they didn’t know how to address it,” Delaine says.

Enter renown civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall who successfully argued the Briggs case along with the Brown case before the Supreme Court during 1954.

While justices said collectively the ruling must be carried out with all deliberate speed, South Carolinians who know the case feel relevant pages are missing from American History.

“Alphabetically, Briggs comes before Brown, also chronologically Briggs was the first case that attacked segregation in education,” Williams said.

It was a case that resulted in Reverend DeLaine and members of the Briggs Family along with Levi Pearson’s relatives being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

“You are missing that there are other communities who played a critical role in this landmark case including the community of Summerton, South Carolina,” Donaldson said.

And that’s those connected to this case are hoping documents and the title from the high court can be amended 60 years later.

“We want to petition the Supreme Court to revisit it. If nothing better than Brown instead …Brown/Briggs versus Board of Education.”

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