Nancy McGinley knew about the secondhand books and sub-par buildings.

Marker to be unveiled at James Simons Elementary

The Preservation Society of Charleston will unveil a historic marker at James Simons Elementary School at 1 p.m. today to commemorate the desegregation of Charleston schools.

The vetting, funding and installation of this historic marker is a part of the society’s 2011 Seven to Save listing of civil rights era sites. Seven to Save recognizes the significance of local historic sites in the civil rights movement.

Speakers include: Oveta Glover, the former student who desegregated James Simons in 1963; Evan Thompson, Preservation Society executive director; Aurora Harris, Preservation Society community outreach manager; City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie; and Lisa Herring, an associate superintendent in Charleston County School District.

Honored guests include some additional former students who desegregated Charleston schools: Barbara Ford, Gale Ford, Clarice Hines (Lewis), Joann Howard and Alifay Edwards.

“We are honored to place this marker in front of the campus where brave students stood up for equality and set foot 50 years ago, and I thank the Preservation Society for their partnership,” said Charleston County Schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley.

James Simons Elementary was one of four schools to be desegregated in 1963.

The marker will be unveiled at King and Moultrie streets. This event is free and open to the public.

Charleston County’s top schools leader had spent hours poring over court transcripts, school board documents and historical books chronicling the inequities of the civil rights era.

She understood on an intellectual level the pain caused by that past. Then she saw the faces and heard the voices of the former students who lived it. They personalized the suffering.

They told vivid stories about their experiences as some of the first students to desegregate Charleston schools.

McGinley responded with an apology.

“I want to say we were wrong,” she told them Thursday. “We discriminated against children. We treated you badly and we will do better. We must do better.”

McGinley wasn’t the district’s superintendent during desegregation, and she didn’t have any direct connection to what happened. But that didn’t change what happened.

Her apology was a public acknowledgement that the school district hadn’t embraced its obligation to provide a high-quality education to all students.

“I’m very proud of the school district and the values we stand for now,” she said, “but I am not proud of its history.”

McGinley first apologized in February at a panel discussion organized by the College of Charleston to commemorate the city’s 50-year anniversary of school desegregation. She was there only to read a proclamation on behalf of Mayor Joe Riley. But she was so struck by the testimony she heard that she made an impromptu public apology on behalf of the school district.

She referenced the South African notion of reconciliation, which involves forgiving the past and acknowledging the wrong that was done.

“It was just the right thing to do,” she said this week as she reflected on that decision.

‘Mistrust both ways’

McGinley wanted other educators to listen to the same stories. On Thursday, McGinley gathered every school principal in Charleston County to hear former students talk about their experiences in desegregating Charleston schools 50 years ago. She hoped principals would come away with a better understanding of their schools’ students and families.

“I may be a northerner but I’ve been here for nine years, and there are glaringly obvious things that are still problematic,” she said. “We have mistrust both ways, both black and white. We have issues of low expectations.”

This isn’t the first time McGinley has put an emphasis on diversity. She made it one of the district’s four key values. She has hired more minority principals, organized book studies on diversity and encouraged conversations among employees.

Still, that doesn’t mean McGinley’s relationship with the black community has been perfect. Citizens United for Public Schools, which includes high-profile groups such as the Charleston NAACP and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, has criticized and protested some of her decisions for the leadership of majority minority schools and for the way black students and teachers have been treated.

Sincere, warranted

Still, Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott applauded McGinley for apologizing and acknowledging the wrong done during desegregation. Those memories aren’t fuzzy or distant, and many fear any effort that could somehow resurrect previous inequity.

“I want so badly to say that we’re turning a corner, and surely we’re much better than we were, but we have too many people saying” they want back formerly all-white schools such as the former Rivers High, and “it doesn’t matter how we get it,” she said.

Scott said McGinley is “probably the most decent person you’d ever meet” and thought her apology was sincere and warranted.

“It’s appropriate, and ... it went a long way to say we have someone here who cares enough to listen and respond that way,” she said.

McGinley told the district’s leaders that she hoped they would remember this learning opportunity, make positive changes and ensure that Charleston continues to be a leader in promoting diversity.

“We’ve all chosen education because we believe it changes lives,” she said. “We’re going to take your lessons with us and we’re going to get it right with this generation.”

S.H. Kress sit-in

Cecelia Gordon Rogers was among the principals listening to Thursday’s discussion. She was a senior at Burke High in 1960 when she and 23 other students staged the first downtown sit-in of a segregated five-and-dime store, S.H. Kress.

Rogers went on to help start a small charter school, Charleston Development Academy, that serves students mostly in the surrounding housing project.

Rogers said she felt proud that McGinley took a stance and apologized. Charleston still isn’t finished healing; that takes time, she said.

“We all must be forgiving,” she said.

Millicent Brown was among the first students who desegregated Rivers High, and she was the main plaintiff in a lawsuit that eventually desegregated the school district.

She said McGinley’s apology is the beginning of what will be an arduous process of reconciling what was intended by desegregation and what actually happened.

“Let us commit to really reconciling how do we make this community care about all of our children,” she said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.