COLUMBIA -- The late Rev. Joseph A. De Laine endured firing, death threats, the burning of his Summerton home and Lake City church, and exile from his native state, yet his story and legacy as one of the central figures in the fight to desegregate South Carolina schools is largely obscure.
His daughter, Ophelia De Laine Gona, hopes to remedy that with a new book.
It took Gona seven years to write "Dawn of Desegregation: J.A. De Laine and Briggs v. Elliott" (USC Press) -- and a lifetime to discern the scope of her father's achievements in his native Clarendon County, as he led mostly poor black farmers and laborers in what would become one of the seminal desegregation battles of the 20th century.
"Almost everything that had been written up to this point was hearsay, and I thought it was necessary to get the story on paper of what actually happened as closely as possible," she said Friday.
Her late father had been profiled in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Simple Justice" by Richard Kluger, which still stands as the most definitive account of the five legal cases that were wrapped up in the 1954 Supreme Court decision overturning the doctrine of "separate but equal schools." De Laine was interviewed by Kluger but died in 1974, a year before the book was published.
De Laine himself penned a series of articles for his church publication, The AME Recorder, that gave an accounting of how he and a group of largely uneducated parents pushed first for a school bus in 1946 for Clarendon's black children and then, with the help of Thurgood Marshall and a team of NAACP lawyers, upended the system of segregated schools.
Gona, a 75-year-old retired medical school professor, wanted to fulfill her father's longstanding plea that she write the saga of those turbulent years.
She began researching in earnest in 2003 and plumbed her own childhood memories and those of her relatives to figure out how her father, a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal church, found the courage to challenge the 1940s white establishment.
"He was a man who believed that people were responsible for their own fates," she said. "He did not believe going to somebody hat in hand. You held your head up high; you carried yourself erect; you kept yourself clean; and you thought you were equal to everyone."
He read the newspaper to his parishioners and helped them count their money and fill out legal papers. He encouraged the petitioners to hold fast, even as the white leaders of Summerton fired them from jobs and threatened them with other economic reprisals.
In the midst of the Briggs court battle, the church moved the family to Lake City for the pastor's safety, but Gona said she was sheltered from the worst of the threats that eventually drove her father to fire back at night riders who had shot into the family's home.
South Carolina issued a warrant for De Laine's arrest because he had fired back, a warrant that remained in place until two decades after his death.
He settled in New York and remained there, serving AME pastorates until his retirement in 1971 to Charlotte.
Though he maintained a lifelong friendship with another South Carolina exile, U.S. District Judge Waties Waring, who had presided over the Clarendon case, he longed for home.
"Daddy was a modest man. The series of articles that he wrote was 'our part in the revolution,' " she noted. "It wasn't 'my part'; it was 'our part.' He recognized he could not have done it alone, but without him, it could not have happened."