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National recognition sought for SC sites involved in fight to end segregation in schools

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Already on the National Register of Historic Places, preservationists want the downtown Columbia home of civil rights pioneer Modjeska Monteith Simkins added to a National Park Service museum commemorating the 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education” Supreme Court ruling that integrated American schools. Adam Benson/Staff

A National Historic Site about how segregation was outlawed in America's public schools should be expanded to South Carolina to recognize the pivotal role of a lawsuit that started here, historians said Monday.

They want locations in Columbia and rural Clarendon County to be included in the National Park Service's Brown v. Board of Education historical site in Topeka, Kansas, saying the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 ruling that declared segregation illegal can't be fully understood without them.

While the ruling gets its name from a lawsuit out of Kansas challenging segregation, the arguments before the nation's high court actually consolidated five separate cases, and it was a lawsuit from South Carolina — Briggs v. Elliott, filed by Summerton parents in 1950 — that made it there first.     

Historians and family members of the South Carolinians who courageously fought for the education of Black children, starting in the late 1940s, made their announcement in front of the downtown Columbia home of pioneering civil rights leader Modjeska Monteith Simkins.

Simkins helped write the Briggs lawsuit, named for the first of 20 parents to sign it. The Marion Street house, already on the National Register of Historic Places, was her home from 1932 until her death in 1992. 

"In some ways, the things that are going on in the country today around race and racism make it even more important for people to see how the struggle has gone on for many years,” said Simkins’ niece, Henrie Monteith Treadwell.

“There would probably be little to say around school desegregation in South Carolina had she not put herself on the line,” said Treadwell, who in 1965 became the first Black USC graduate since 1877.

Efforts to expand the Kansas site’s reach have federal support, with U.S. House Majority Leader Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia and U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, filing legislation in Congress earlier this month to add schools in the other states involved in the case.

They include the former Summerton High School, which was the all-White school until integration occurred in the 1960s and now houses the Clarendon 1 school district's main offices, and the former Scott's Branch High School. Now a community center, it was built for Black students after the Briggs lawsuit was filed in an unsuccessful bid to bolster the "separate but equal" argument. 

South Carolina's two GOP senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. 

"The unsung heroes of Briggs v. Elliott, and all the other plaintiffs that collectively became Brown v. Board of Education, must be remembered and memorialized to fully tell the story of how segregation ended in our nation's public schools,” Clyburn said earlier this month.

South Carolina historians want to expand the designation further.

Beyond Simkins' home in Columbia, they want other places in Summerton to become "affiliated areas” of the Kansas site. They include three churches that served as meeting places, the home of Harry and Eliza Briggs, and the home of Levi Pearson — who filed an earlier lawsuit in 1947 that was thrown out on a technicality over where he paid taxes.

Pearson sought bus transportation for his three children, who had to walk nine miles to school. The county provided buses for White children, but none for Black students. While that case was rejected, it laid the groundwork for the NAACP to challenge segregation itself.  

The designation would mean more prominent signage, opportunities for grants to upgrade, remodel and build education centers around the sites, as well as the potential for bringing tourism revenue.

“The spotlight of history has always veered away from this community in South Carolina, and many people have forgotten the core role this community played,” Bobby Donaldson, director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina, said of Summerton.

Rev. Joseph DeLaine, a minister and school principal in Clarendon County, was instrumental in encouraging parents to sign on to the lawsuits and worked with the NAACP in challenging the unequal education system. The NAACP's lead attorney was Thurgood Marshall, who in 1967 went on to be the first Black on the U.S. Supreme Court.

While his arguments against segregation were initially rejected 2-1 by a U.S. District Court panel, the dissenting opinion by Judge J. Waites Waring, who wrote “segregation is per se inequality,” framed the legal argument for the high court's ruling. 

The Briggs case also helped define the American civil rights movement in the decade to follow, offering yet another reason why Summerton’s venues should be singled out for their historical significance, Donaldson said.

"They understood the ruling was not simply about better schools,” he said.

That’s why Toya Williams, originally from Sumter, came to Columbia from California on Monday. Her great-grandfather was Levi Pearson.

“I know that South Carolina comes with so much history, and it is my desire to represent our community well, where everything started,” she said.

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

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