Charleston County Councilwoman Anna Johnson grew up in rural James Island during the 1950s and '60s, a time when South Carolina schools were on the brink of integration.
Like others on the island, Johnson attended W. Gresham Meggett High School, the only school for black children. She graduated in 1966 and went on to pursue a political career.
"I never dreamt of becoming a politician," Johnson said at a gathering of Gresham Meggett alumni on Sunday.
As part of a federally funded effort to document African-American history and the civil rights movement across the country, the Charleston County Zoning and Planning Department and researchers from New South Associates LLC will document the memories of the students who attended W. Gresham Meggett High School.
The school was one of several South Carolina equalization schools created in 1951 from state funding for "separate but equal" education. It was James Island's only school for black children and provided K-12 education from 1953 to 1966. The school was named for W. Gresham Meggett (1903–1990), a former chair of the James Island School Board. In 1994, the Septima P. Clark Corporate Academy vocational school moved to the campus.
On Sunday, Johnson encouraged her peers to participate in the study, titled "A Journey to Equal Education: Stories from Historic African-American Communities." The oral histories would be a gift to future generations of African-American students, she said.
"We didn't realize we had a story to tell about coming here, but we do," she said. "We can truly let the world know the people on James Island have a story to tell."
Interviews with alumni, former teachers and staff members will likely begin in February, said lead historian Mary Beth Reed. This spring, New South Associates researchers plan to host a "heritage day," in which alumni are encouraged to bring any photographs, documents and artifacts they may have from their high school days. Examples of relevant artifacts would be yearbooks, engagement rings or prom boutonnieres, she said.
Of the 30 alumni who attended a recent informational meeting, only a dozen raised their hands when asked if they wanted to be interviewed.
A 1954 graduate asked Reed who would benefit from her sharing her memories.
"You're telling your story the way it happened to you during this time period," Reed said. "You're adding to the historical record."
The documentation of the segregated Charleston-area school is timely given the state of education for black children today, Johnson said.
"Amen," said Barbara Brown, W. Gresham Meggett class of 1966.
Brown said she often describes her high school experience to her children, who attended James Island High School. Though their school was integrated, the quality of their education was inferior to what she received, Brown said. Her children were years behind in reading, for example.
A recent Post and Courier investigation found that de facto segregation continues to permeate the state's education system today. One in eight public schools have a student body that is comprised of 90 percent or more minority students. About 36,000 children, mostly white, choose not to attend the public schools each year and go to private ones instead, the newspaper found.
"I always said, 'Give us equal education,'" Brown said. "Integration was almost a disadvantage for our children."
This effort was one of four South Carolina history projects to receive help from the National Park Service's African American Civil Rights Grants Program. The Obama-era program was created in 2016 with about $8 million in revenue from federal oil leases.
The Gresham Meggett project received a $50,000 grant, while a second Charleston-based project, "Documenting and Sharing the History of Mosquito Beach and its Role in the Civil Rights Movement," received a $43,084 grant. Two Orangeburg projects also received funding: The historic Trinity Methodist Church received $500,000 toward its repair; and Claflin University, a historically black college, received $50,000 toward a plan for its South Carolina Trustee Hall.