A walk that changed history

Millicent Brown, an associate professor at Claflin University, recalls her experience at Rivers High School in 1963, when she was one of the first black students to desegregate Charleston County Schools.

ORANGEBURG — Millicent Brown can’t forget the night before she walked past a phalanx of reporters and cameras through the front door of Charleston’s all-white Rivers High School and into history, beginning desegregation of South Carolina’s public schools.

“I didn’t sleep that night,” Brown recalls.

She was worried — about her hair.

As the 15-year-old stood on the threshold of history, she said, “My main concern was how I’m going to look.”

In those days it wasn’t stylish for black girls to wear their hair natural, so one of her sisters put some gel on her hair to straighten it and then rolled it in huge, head-numbing curlers.

Brown envisioned her hair as an uncontrolled mess in the morning when she knew she would be seen by both blacks and whites as a symbol of her race. “I didn’t want to be an embarrassment to the black community.”

Today is the 50th anniversary of Brown’s groundbreaking walk into Rivers. The associate professor of history plans to celebrate it Wednesday with a day-long symposium at Claflin University on the goals and hopes of that time and what has happened since. At least one of the 10 other black students who integrated Charleston’s schools with Brown will be a panelist.

But for the slowness of court litigation Millicent Brown would not have been the one to walk into Rivers. It would have been her older sister Minerva, but she graduated from high school and Millicent replaced her in the lawsuit as the lead plaintiff.

On that Sept. 3 morning 50 years ago, Millicent Brown’s hair turned out just fine. She and 12-year-old Jacqueline Ford, an eighth-grader, were the only black students to integrate Rivers that school year. The other black students in the lawsuit integrated three other schools on the peninsula.

Brown said she wasn’t certain what to expect that day, given the angry crowds that often met desegregation efforts. But at Rivers and the other white Charleston schools integrated that day, no mobs jeered as the black students entered. Law enforcement officials made it clear they would not tolerate crowds. Even the police presence was small, mainly officers to direct traffic. But additional officers were nearby in reserve, ready to respond, and State Law Enforcement Division officers had been sent to monitor the schools.

Brown remembers only the throng of reporters and the flashes of news cameras.

She was led to the principal’s office where she and Ford waited a short time before being taken to their separate homerooms. Brown recalls the teacher’s expression: “It was the look of, ‘why me?’” Brown thought the teacher was going to have a heart attack.

Then the school intercom crackled to life: Everyone was ordered to file outside in a fire drill that was called because of a phoned-in bomb threat. It would be the first of three bomb threats that Brown recalls that school day, although news accounts refer to just one.

Brown said she sensed that teachers and students were looking at her as if the bomb threats were her fault.

While she was outside during the first bomb threat, a news photographer shot a picture of her smiling and talking with a white girl. The photo would appear on the front page of the New York Times and newspapers across the nation and in foreign countries.

Brown never liked the photo: It gave the impression that all was friendly and supportive that day, she said. “To me, it doesn’t capture the tension. You don’t see the negative stares, the jeers. It does not represent what was going on.”

It wasn’t all negative. Brown and the white girl, Barbara Solomon, did strike up a friendship which would last for years, ending with Solomon’s death a few years ago. And the children of a handful of high-profile Charlestonians made a point of greeting her. They included Gedney Howe III, son of noted lawyer Gedney Howe Jr.; Robert Rosen, son of Morris Rosen, Charleston’s legal counsel at the time; and Charlie Brown, son of school board trustee chairman Charles A. Brown, who died a year earlier.

Rosen recalls that day as one in which Charleston showed it was not like the virulent, racist places seen on television and in newspapers. Many Southern states aggressively resisted the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling outlawing racial segregation in public schools. That week, police on horseback in Louisiana used cattle prods to break up a segregation protest, and in Alabama Gov. George Wallace called out hundreds of state troopers to prevent blacks from entering some previously all-white schools.

Rosen recalls that welcoming Millicent Brown to the school simply seemed like the right thing to do. “People look back at it like it was the Dark Ages,” but he and many other whites were in favor of integration, Rosen said. His father had helped desegregate Charleston’s Municipal Golf Course two years earlier.

In addition, he said, his father knew and was friendly with her father, J. Arthur Brown, who was state president of the NAACP.

For Millicent Brown it was the beginning of three long, lonely years. No other black students would enroll in the school that year because the federal judge who ordered the integration limited it to the 11 students named in the lawsuit. The judge delayed full integration for a year to give the district time to plan for how to do it.

Over the next couple of years few black high school children joined Brown. It was only natural, she said: “High school students don’t like to leave their schools,” especially juniors and seniors. The lack of social interaction with white students made it hard for her to do what she did when she attended all-black Burke High School, where she described herself as a joiner. At Rivers she did little but attend her classes.

“I simply looked forward to going home, being back in my comfort zone. School was like a job you dreaded going to. ... I think that experience molded a part of me. I don’t join groups very readily. I am accustomed to being on my own.”

She said she can’t help but wonder if her experience at Rivers played a role in her two failed marriages. “Did that impact my ability to stay married?” she asked out loud. She then cut off the thought, laughed and said, “I’ll leave that to my shrink.”

To this day she’s not a joiner, she said, and compared the experience at Rivers to post-traumatic stress disorder. She believes thousands of black adults may suffer from some form of it because of their roles integrating schools.

Oveta Glover said it was tough on all 11 of the children who integrated Charleston’s schools. “I have blocked out a lot of things that happened.”

She was 9 years old when she and two other black girls walked into all-white James Simons Elementary School. Glover, now a Student Scholarship Coordinator at Voorhees College in Denmark, said she’s afraid the suffering may have been in vain as many schools in Charleston and across the country have virtually resegregated.

Brown sees the children who integrated schools as the shock troops of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t a one-time thing, she said. Those children had to be on the front lines of that battle day after day.

Unfortunately, she said, only part of what they fought for has been achieved: “I know it accomplished the end of legal separation,” she said, but it didn’t bring about true educational equity.

Most black schools at the time were underfunded and ill-equipped, but that does not necessarily mean the children did not get a good education, Brown said. Blacks were not trying to enter white schools because they couldn’t be well-educated unless they sat with whites: They wanted racial integration because it was the right, fair and equitable thing to do.

Her concern for the children who fought for that led her to start a research project several years ago at Claflin to capture their memories before it’s too late. Her project is called “Somebody Had to Do It,” the phrase many of the first children of desegregation have used to describe why they did it.

She calls them the “nameless people” who fought to end racial segregation by sacrificing their youth.

Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558

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