About 80 miles north of Charleston, at exits 108 and 115 off Interstate 95, sits a community of proud South Carolinians whose agriculture heritage grew from the sandy and loamy soils of its fields. Travel along the backroads of highways 261 or 260, and a traveler can still see cotton, soybeans and other commodity crops that once made this rural community prosper. Beyond the tree line, however, are the churches, schools and neighborhoods of Clarendon County, still standing as reminders of a civil rights legacy that changed the nation.
This community is home to Briggs vs. Elliott, a case brought to U.S. District Court in Charleston in 1950 to end segregation in public schools. Although the case was defeated, the NAACP and other activists used the dissenting opinion to help form the basis of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that permanently ended segregation in public schools in 1954.
The National Park Service is considering expanding its Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka to include at least one historic structure in this South Carolina community to fully interpret the significant story.
One of those sites is Summerton High School, built in 1936 for white students only, and still standing at 16 South Church Street in Summerton and most recently used as offices for Clarendon County School District One. The school is the only remaining site that was mentioned in the first petition brought by Clarendon County parents to obtain equal rights for schoolchildren. Landowner Levi Pearson petitioned the local school board in 1947 to provide bus transportation for his children, detailing the glaring differences in expenditures, buildings and services available for white and black students. He lost the court case on a technicality that determined his land was not completely located in the school district, and therefore was not being taxed.
During that time, the community met, regrouped and strategized behind their leader Reverend Joseph A. DeLaine, a pastor and a teacher at Liberty Hill Elementary, and with the support of young attorney Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP. Some of the churches used for strategy sessions can still be found in the town of Summerton and the city of Manning, Clarendon’s county seat, including:
- Liberty Hill AME at 2310 Liberty Hill Road in Summerton. Nineteen members of the congregation were plaintiffs in the Briggs vs. Elliott case and the church was used as a meeting site.
- Union Cypress AME at 8247 Highway 260 in Manning. Rev. DeLaine and other leaders began meeting at this church after Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP made a commitment to help the community through their lawsuit.
- Mt. Zion AME Church at 6547 M. W. Rickenbaker Road in Summerton, was the church home of Levi Pearson, who filed the first petition challenging school bus transportation.
- St. Mark AME at #2 First Street in Summerton, a regular meeting site for the movement.
State official historical markers at these sites interpret their historic significance.
Also still standing is Scott’s Branch High School, which was given a new brick classroom building and a new gymnasium in the 1950s as the state of South Carolina committed itself to segregated schools by investing in more “equal” services.
Back in Charleston, at the U.S. District Court at 83 Broad Street (in the garden behind the building) stands a statue honoring Judge Julius Waties Waring, whose dissenting opinion in Briggs seems more prescient today:
“From their [parents and NAACP] testimony, it was clearly apparent, as it should be to any thoughtful person … that segregation in education can never produce equality and that it is an evil that must be eradicated. This case presents the matter clearly … and I am of the opinion that all of the legal guideposts, expert testimony, common sense and reason point unerringly to the conclusion that the system of segregation in education adopted and practiced in the State of South Carolina must go and must go now. Segregation is per se inequality.”
– Judge Julius Waties Waring, 1952
To learn more about the community of people who fought for integrated schools in Clarendon County, SC, visit GreenBookofSC.com and search for keywords “civil rights.”