A few weeks ago, lawmakers were asked to put a statue of the Rev. Joseph A. De Laine on Statehouse grounds.
It is an excellent idea.
De Laine is one of the most unsung heroes in South Carolina history. As a Clarendon County minister in the 1940s, he started a petition asking the school board to provide a bus for black students.
Although Clarendon County had 60 buses, they were all assigned to the white schools. Black children had to walk miles to the decrepit shacks that served as their schools, many of them without electricity or water. There was nothing equal about that, only separate.
But the Clarendon school board chairman, Roderick Miles Elliott, refused. He said black residents didn’t pay enough taxes to deserve public transportation.
So De Laine’s group filed a lawsuit that became Briggs v. Elliott — the first of five cases that led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. Which ended segregation in public schools, and sparked the civil rights movement.
It’s amazing no one has thought to memorialize De Laine at the Statehouse before. But what’s really surprising is who sent the request.
His name is Joe Elliott, the grandson of Roderick Miles Elliott.
Family, and U.S., history
Elliott, a retired professor living in Aiken, was close to his grandfather growing up in Clarendon County.
He was too young to know what was going on during the lawsuit. His family never talked about it, “or if they did, it wasn’t above a whisper.”
But Elliott remembers the fallout. When he was a teenager, after the Brown decision, the Ku Klux Klan paraded through Summerton to protest integration. It was, he remembers, terrifying.
The Elliott family has been trying to heal those old wounds for years. In 2004, the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board, they organized a celebration in Clarendon County. It was then that they got to know De Laine’s children.
That's another inspiring aspect of this story. This isn't just Joe’s quest — 21 descendants of Roderick Miles Elliott have endorsed the idea. Carl Elliott, a great nephew of the chairman, said in a New York Times column last week that his father was deeply uncomfortable with the family's role in Briggs v. Elliott.
And Julia Elliott, a Columbia writer and professor, says there needs to be a balance to the Jim Crow-era monuments at the Statehouse.
"While there are still many South Carolinians who cling to a romanticized past," the chairman's great-granddaughter says, "the Columbia that I know and love is ready to tell ugly truths about our state’s history by honoring silenced heroes like Joseph De Laine."
That is a perspective more people need today. The Elliott family has found a way to remember the past, acknowledge its wrongs and try to set things right.
“This gives us some redemption,” Joe Elliott says. “We just want people to know that what our grandfather did was not right, even if he wasn’t quite the villain he was painted to be. It was the country. The whole South was wrong.”
In other words, if his grandfather hadn’t denied De Laine's request, he would have been replaced with someone who would.
He's right. The entire system was rigged against black citizens. Which is abundantly clear when you learn what happened to De Laine.
Rev. De Laine and his wife were teachers in Clarendon County, and he was pastor of a local church.
After the lawsuit, both lost their jobs with the school system. Firefighters watched as their house burned, claiming it was outside their jurisdiction — by 60 feet.
The family moved to Lake City, where De Laine became minister at another church. But his days in South Carolina were numbered.
After the Brown decision, De Laine’s church was burned down and he received death threats in the mail. Then, in October 1955, a carload of men shot up his house.
When they returned an hour later, De Laine shot back to mark the car.
The police had the audacity to charge De Laine for the shooting, but not his attackers. That was justice for African-Americans in South Carolina before civil rights.
De Laine had to leave the state, which didn’t drop those charges until 2000 — four years before he was posthumously award a congressional gold medal.
De Laine’s children had nothing to do with the idea for a monument, but call the Elliott family’s efforts commendable.
“It is highly desirable to have monuments that remember those who labored to make the world a better place for all of us,” says Ophelia Gona, the pastor’s daugher. “Rev. De Laine, who sought equality for all, was one of those people.”
Joe Elliott says ultimately De Laine should be honored not only for his courage, but also his accomplishment.
“His case laid the legal foundation for the civil rights movement."
And that is something for which all of South Carolina should be proud.