Joe DeLaine stood in the very courtroom Friday where his father's case started the long road toward ending the practice of separating schoolchildren by skin color.
South Carolina law professionals gathered at the federal courthouse in Charleston to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the landmark Briggs v. Elliott case. Although lower courts upheld racial segregation, U.S. District Judge J. Waties Waring's impassioned dissent laid the foundation for the U.S. Supreme Court's eventual reversal of that decision in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
The Briggs case began with 17 families, as Joe DeLaine recalled Friday, who came together in Clarendon County in 1944 and paid $300 for an old bus that had been converted into a chicken coop, which they turned back into a running vehicle. Some of those people lived 18 miles away from their children's school.
When that bus eventually broke down, the families chose the Rev. Joseph DeLaine as their spokesman to ask for transportation. As the case progressed, the younger DeLaine remembered, threats started.
A local school principal eventually won a slander lawsuit against the elder DeLaine, and the family's house burned down shortly thereafter.
The insurance money never came, Joe DeLaine said, and the company told his father that it went toward the settlement he owed.
The family took that as a message.
The DeLaines relocated to Lake City, where they lived peacefully for five years before the Supreme Court's ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. Joe DeLaine said someone vandalized his father's parsonage, and then the Rev. DeLaine received a letter telling him to leave town within 10 days or die.
Church officials asked him to relocate, but "you know where he told them to go," his son said Friday.
The church eventually burned too, and the DeLaine family fled to New York. Joe DeLaine credits his father and Waring, also living in New York by then, for organizing food delivery to people involved in the case back in South Carolina.
Clarendon County merchants refused to sell to people suspected of participating in the Briggs case, and Jet magazine flew in supplies.
Thomas Hanchett, curator of the "Courage: The Carolina Story That Changed America" exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, introduced DeLaine on Friday. Hanchett described the circumstances under which the DeLaines and the other Clarendon County families rallied.
At the time, the entire black community shared a single phone, Hanchett said, adding, "Imagine organizing in that kind of world."
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