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Former students reflect 50 years after desegregation of Dorchester County schools

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While debates around whether Black students could legally occupy the same building as white students are long gone in Dorchester County, it wasn’t a position that came easily or without sacrifice.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of schools in Dorchester County. In 1969, U.S. District Judge Robert Hemphill signed an order specifying how county schools would be expected to fully integrate institutions that once solely housed white children for the 1970 school year.

For example, Harleyville-Ridgeville High School, one of those predominantly white institutions at the time, would serve 285 African American students and 229 white students that year.

This would mark the beginning of total desegregation in Dorchester County schools. Prior to this, activists had to compete against Freedom of Choice policies, which only allowed for a handful of African American students to transfer into white schools, and the building of equal schools that attempted to maintain a “separate but equal” status quo among Black and white students.

Though segregation is no longer a legal reality in Dorchester County today, residents continue to debate whether to combine the county’s last two remaining school districts. The larger Dorchester District 2 encompasses much of the greater Summerville area and has a higher percentage of white students. District 4 consists of the smaller St. George and Ridgeville area and is predominantly Black.

“I think it's a good thing in the long run to be united,” said Joseph Pye, the superintendent for District 2.

Alston Middle School directly neighbors Alston-Bailey Elementary School. Prior to desegregation, Alston-Bailey Elementary was the location of Alston High School, a school for Black residents in the Summerville area.

“It was my comfort zone,” said Louis Fowler, one of the last graduates of Alston High.

Alston High School 

Every year, Fowler and some of his former classmates try to get together in December in celebration and remembrance of the legacy of Alston High School. This year may be different with the COVID-19 pandemic, but he realizes this year is special with the anniversary.

He knows many people might not remember that the school existed or why he and his former school peers fought so hard to keep the Alston name in the elementary school.

“The Alston experience was good for me," Fowler said. "They pushed you to succeed.”

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Louis Fowler goes through a binder of photos and other memorabilia from Alston High School on Monday, June 15, 2020, in Summerville. Fowler graduated from Alston High School, a school for Black residents before desegregation, in 1966. Fowler remained at Alston because the teachers pushed him to succeed not only in the classroom but in life too. He has been working to preserve the heritage of Alston High School for Summerville residents. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Around 1954, some of the students had the option of applying to help integrate Summerville High School. This wasn’t full desegregation, but a process of school choice where a handful of African American students would be allowed to attend Summerville High School.

“I decided not to go,” Fowler said. “It was to my benefit.”

This wasn’t because he didn’t support integration or realize the value of students being a part of the program. His father, the Rev. J.C. Fowler worked closely with the NAACP on voting rights for Black people in the area.

“I remember them marching down main street in Summerville in the early '60s,” he said.

But his father didn’t pressure him about being a part of the integration process. And at Alston, he said, the teachers were nurturing and highly encouraged him to go to college. He was also president of his senior class and the student council.

The school had a successful football team, band and school newspaper.

So he didn’t see himself wanting to leave what he had built at Alston. He would go on to graduate from Alston in 1966 and attend Benedict College in Columbia.

While desegregation in 1970 meant more African American students at Summerville High, the same couldn’t be said for Alston High.

“You didn’t have any white folks coming to Alston,” he said.

Desegregation meant the closure of Alston High and not some white students going to Alston and some Black students going to Summerville High. A part of Fowler wishes the school had been able to remain open because of the impact he felt the African American teachers had on the students.

It also wasn't likely that all of those teachers at Alston would have the opportunity to follow their students to Summerville High.

Summerville Councilman Aaron Brown was the band director at Alston High School in his early '20s. He said the desegregation was smooth and benefited the town in the long run. His only grievance was that all the instructors at Alston would have to be assistants if they got a chance to work at Summerville High.

This would’ve made him the assistant band director.

“I refused to take that position. ... Other than that, it went really smoothly,” he said.

Fowler thinks if Alston had remained open, the community in Summerville would potentially look different. There probably would’ve been more African American residents in the area going to college and more diversity in jobs, he said. He also thinks more people would have come back home to live in Summerville as he did after graduating from college.

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Louis Fowler sits on his front porch Monday, June 15, 2020, in Summerville. Fowler graduated from Alston High School, a school for Black residents before desegregation, in 1966. Fowler remained at Alston because the teachers pushed him to succeed not only in the classroom but in life too. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Summerville High School wouldn’t look the same either, he said.

“Summerville would not be two stories if Alston hadn’t shut down,” he said.

But he is appreciative of those who did integrate the schools in Dorchester County. His children and grandchildren all attended Summerville High School.

'Yes ma'am, we will'

Elijah DeLee doesn’t remember what his mother told him on his first day at Harleyville-Ridgeville High School in 1967. He thinks it was probably something like “be strong.”

But on days when he would come home with black eyes, busted lips and cuts, he remembers her telling him, “I want you to just hold on.”

Today, from his front door in Ridgeville, DeLee can see the area where his former home once stood before it was burned down in 1969. He and his younger sisters were part of a handful of Black students who integrated the Dorchester School District prior to full desegregation in 1970. He and his siblings' case against the then Dorchester District 3 was central in the eventual desegregation of schools.

His mother is also the renowned Victoria DeLee, a highly vocal South Carolina civil rights activist who pushed for issues like voting rights in the African American community and the desegregation of Dorchester County schools.

She was the first Black person in her Ridgeville community to have a voter registration certificate. She led marches with the Native American parents and students of the remote Four Holes community to include them in the integration conversations in the school district.

And, according to Elijah, she was never afraid to speak her mind and call out injustice. She stood up to deputies, politicians and school officials. She was arrested multiple times for her activism and was also a candidate for the 1st Congressional District in 1971.

But all of these actions also made the DeLee family a target for harassment. Elijah said, they used to have to sleep on the floor because men would routinely shoot at their home at night. His mother would say her house looked like a polka dot dress.

There was also a time when a white man struck her in the head with a pistol in retaliation for her civil rights activism.

The peak of this harassment was their home being burned down. Elijah said he remembers two white men coming to their new home not too long after that offering his mother money to stop her activism. She declined.

She died from a brain tumor when Elijah and his siblings were adults. 

When asked what kept his mother so dedicated, Elijah said it was her witnessing a Black man gunned down in a cotton field after he was told to run when she was working as a child. His blood hitting the cotton was something that was always stuck in her head, Elijah said. 

“That always bothered her,” he said.

It was that same drive and caregiving spirit for her community that she instilled him and his siblings. So, when she asked them as children if they were OK with being a part of the school integration process, they agreed.

“We all said, 'Yes, ma'am, we will' ... and we did,” DeLee said.

When he thinks about the experience of being the first Black boy to integrate Harleyville-Ridgevile High School more than 50 years ago, he can’t think of a happy day.

He was routinely attacked by several of the white students. At the pep rallies, it was always a good thing to be the person who caught the football that was thrown in the audience. But, for him, it wasn’t.

For him, it meant an excuse for the white students to secretly crowd and attack him. So they would always try to toss the football in his direction. He stopped going to the pep rallies.

He couldn’t even find solace on the school bus where a white girl wrote the N-word on the bus ceiling and drew an arrow that pointed directly over his seat at the back of the bus. Years later, he would see that same woman in the grocery store and she ended up being one of the sweetest people he knew.

One of the white boys who attacked him when he was younger also apologized years later.

“That shocked me,” he said. “You ain’t gone be able to change everybody."

Elijah graduated Harleyville-Ridgeville in 1972 along with dozens of other African American students post-desegregation as the first graduating class of Black students. 

Despite what he went through, he said he wouldn't do anything differently. The change was worth it.

“I went from the back seat to the front of the bus,” he said.

A battle continues 

Jennifer Melton conducted research on the Congress of Racial Equality organizing in Dorchester County during her public history studies at the University of South Carolina. She also completed the National Register nomination for the St. George Rosenwald School or the St. George Colored High School.

That school was one of three institutions in Dorchester County that were built for Black students as part of South Carolina’s school equalization program from 1951 to 1960. The idea was to have these new schools to ward off desegregation.

“That sort of set the context on why desegregation was necessary,” Melton said.

Today, where Dorchester County once had four school districts, there are now two. The battle for some residents now with District 2 is getting more African Americans on the school board.

Louis Smith, a longtime Dorchester County resident and director of the Community Resource Center in Summerville, organized a march over the weekend from the Rollins Edwards Community Center to Hutchinson Square in Summerville in partnership with local parents and activists. 

The purpose, he said, was to bring awareness about there being no minority representation on the board. He has run for a position on the school board in the past and hopes that he and others can work to build diversity.

"The school board should reflect the community," he said. "How can they make decisions?" 

He was proud to see all of the passionate parents marching with him on Saturday all wanting to see a school board that made decisions with more intimate knowledge of the African American community. 

"I think people heard our voices," he said. 

With more Black and Latino residents migrating to the district, he believes that diversity in race, income and culture is vital. 

Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.

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