Divisive reference lives on at school

The front entrance of Simmons Pinckney Middle School. Deanna Pan/Staff

There are three names on the front entrance of the new middle school on Charleston’s President Street in honor of three very different men.

There’s master craftsman Philip Simmons, a beloved and renowned African-American blacksmith whose delicate wrought ironwork has come to define Charleston’s cityscape.

There’s the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and champion of civil rights, foster children and the poor, who was killed while serving his ministry at Emanuel AME Church in June.

And then there’s A.B. Rhett, son of the Confederate major Andrew Burnett Rhett, who presided as superintendent of Charleston schools for 35 years. Rhett “personified the reactionary tradition of the Charleston white elite,” according to College of Charleston professor Edmund Drago in his book on the Avery Research Center.

Rhett vigorously opposed the academic training of young African-Americans during his tenure as superintendent. He envisioned Burke, Charleston’s first public high school for black students, as a training ground for future “cooks, maids, and delivery boys.” He fought salary equalization for white and black teachers. His death, Drago wrote, “symbolized the end of an era of racial radicalism in Charleston.”

His name is also the only permanent fixture on the Cold War-era school building across from Burke High School. The awning reads: “RHETT BUILDING” in big, blue, capital letters. A neon-green banner, inscribed with “Simmons Pinckney Middle School,” hangs directly above it.

In the wake of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church – a crime authorities have characterized as racially motivated attack by a perpetrator with an affinity for Confederate insignia – communities across the country have debated the removal of monuments, memorials, and other historic markers that, for many, romanticize an oppressive and painful past. In South Carolina that debate has taken a more complicated turn: Under the Heritage Act, passed in the 2000 compromise that lowered the rebel banner from atop the Statehouse dome to the Confederate Soldier Monument on its grounds, only an act of the Legislature can alter or expel the state’s most divisive public symbols.

The naming of Simmons Pinckney Middle School “brings up the same type of question,” said College of Charleston assistant professor Jon Hale, who studied education during the Civil Rights Movement. “What do we do with public monuments and our historical landscape of Charleston as we begin to grapple with the depths of the AME tragedy?”

In July, the Charleston County School Board unanimously voted to approve the name of a new standalone middle school on the Burke campus, as recommended by a citizens’ committee. It was a quick and easy decision that inspired a few cheers in the back of the room.

“You can’t go around Charleston and not see something he did. He is Charleston,” said school board chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats, of Simmons’ legacy. “And Sen. Pinckney was always a fan of Charleston County public education even though a small part of his district was in Charleston County.”

But there was a ripple of concern among a few school board observers that the decision might violate the state’s Heritage Act. That question reached Jeff Borowy, CCSD’s deputy of capital programs, who pored through old district records in his office, trying to uncover the Rhett building’s lost history.

“We’re not renaming. It’s still the Rhett Building,” he concluded on a recent Wednesday after a constituent district board meeting at Burke High School. Lately, Borowy had been carrying a copy of the Heritage Act with him in a binder. He pointed to the relevant section of the statute:

“No street, bridge, structure, park, preserve, reserve, or other public area of the State or any of its political subdivisions dedicated in memory of or named for any historic figure or historic event may be renamed or rededicated.” Any change would require a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.

“So if we say that’s the Rhett building and don’t change the name of the building, I think we’re in compliance,” he said. “We didn’t change the name of the existing school. There was no school there.”

A. Burnet Rhett Elementary opened in September 1949, serving some 1,450 African-American children on the same campus as Burke and was dedicated to the late superintendent in November. A 1951 News and Courier article hailed Rhett Elementary as “the finest school building in the state and probably the Southeast” for its “modern” and “functional” design.

The school was converted to a middle school in 1977. Then in 1982, the middle school relocated to the former Charleston High School building on Rutledge Street, where, according to newspaper stories, students were subjected to falling ceiling plaster and concrete. In May 1985, Rhett Middle School closed permanently, three months after a sixth-grader was hit with a chunk of plaster and taken to the emergency room.

Before Simmons Pinckney opened to students last week, the building underwent major renovations. The original facade, meanwhile, remained unchanged.

To Charleston civil rights attorney Armand Derfner, the tricky business of naming a new middle school is “a classic example of why the Heritage Act is wrong.”

Derfner is currently representing five Greenwood residents who are suing the state over a segregation-era plaque on a county war memorial that divides the names of the fallen into “white” and “colored” columns. If the plaintiffs are successful at the state Supreme Court, their case would overturn the Heritage Act.

“It’s just as bad idea and it’s a violation of the state constitution,” Derfner said. “The school board, which owns the property, ought to be able to make the decision and if they want to keep the Rhett name they ought to be able to do that, if they want to do away with the Rhett name they ought to be able to do that... It’s just tyranny.”

But Interim Simmons Pinckney Principal Nathan Nelson isn’t bothered by the Rhett name above the front doors. The founding music director of Lowcountry Voices, Nelson conducted memorial services for both Simmons and Pinckney. He has an optimistic vision for his school: He wants his students to learn about the lives and legacies of the school’s namesakes, and embody their character. He hopes the curriculum’s emphasis on “STEAM” science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) will attract a more diverse student body, which currently is 98 percent black.

If he had his way, he wouldn’t change anything about the three names on the building.

“It’s the history of the school. You have the old and the new. This is where we’re from. This where we are now,” he said. “I think it shows us what Charleston is becoming. We are a more diverse and unified community. I think that’s what this school will do.”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.