SUMMERTON — Outside Liberty Hill AME Church, a thick blanket of overcast skies hung heavy. But inside the century-old sanctuary, jubilation reigned. The old floors — crimson carpet-covered wooden panels bound together with dowels — vibrated with the congregation’s movements.
It was under this same steeple six decades ago that concerned parents, educators and community members discreetly gathered to discuss the state of education for students of color in this small rural community 80 miles northwest of Charleston.
On Sunday, the past and present would collide as those who gathered were told that the church’s role in the civil rights movement would be preserved and highlighted to teach more people about a pivotal time in the state's history.
A new pamphlet will offer visitors a self-guided tour of Summerton and pinpoint locations behind the beginnings of Briggs v. Elliott — a crucial legal case that would ultimately lead to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that shot down the nation's "separate but equal" approach to schools.
"Today," the Rev. Robert L. China Jr. proclaimed to his congregation of about 200, "We stand on the shoulders of the persons who led the charge."
Part of something bigger
A number of the people who once gathered at Liberty Hill in the 1940s and ’50s would band together to become plaintiffs in the federal court case Briggs v. Elliott, which was heard in Charleston in 1952. The case was the culmination of a failed petition pushing for equality in schools.
Unlike white students, black students couldn’t ride buses, so they often walked miles to get to school. They were given outdated and dilapidated textbooks. They didn't have access to adequate restrooms.
At the time Briggs v. Elliott was heard, a panel of judges declined to integrate South Carolina schools, but a dissenting opinion on the matter, which was folded into Brown v. Board of Education, would form the bedrock of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools.
“This brochure takes you to some of the homes, workplaces, churches and meeting halls used by the 22 Clarendon County parents who developed the original Briggs petition,” the pamphlet reads.
The Summerton Community Action Group launched the brochure effort to cement the legacy of this town’s role in the civil rights movement and to provide an economic stimulus for the impoverished working-class community of roughly 1,000 people.
Among the sites also listed in the pamphlet: other churches that served as meeting spaces for parents, including St. Mark AME Church and Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the home of Harry and Eliza Briggs, who ultimately fled north after retaliation from white families in the community.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, attended the Sunday service and heralded the effort
“We know that the No. 1 industry in South Carolina today is tourism,” he said afterward. “These are ways of getting small, rural communities to be a part of our No. 1 industry.”
Clyburn said he is working to establish a statewide network that would seek to highlight smaller, rural communities' roots in the Reconstruction Era in hopes of bolstering local tourism.
'For use in colored schools'
Among the worshippers gathered at Liberty Hill on Sunday was Ethel Brown Marshall. She serves as a member of the same school board that, in her childhood, denied her and her peers improved textbooks and indoor bathrooms.
Her father was a custodian at Summerton High School — the school for white students — and lost his job after it became public that he was among the parents who signed the petition lobbying the school board for improved conditions, she said.
She still remembers clearly what was stamped inside her texts: “For use in colored schools.”
“Operationally, what that meant was these textbooks that were old. They had already been used and discarded by the white schools,” Marshall said. “So they were outdated, and they were given to us to rent out to black kids to be used. So these were the kinds of things parents were trying to improve.”
During the Sunday service, the pastor introduced Samuel Green, bishop of the 7th Episcopal District of the AME Church. Green said the reason the church and community could come together as they did that day was because of the struggles and sacrifices of those who gathered in this sanctuary seven decades ago.
“We know we are still facing racism and prejudice and bigotry in this world,” Green said before he was gifted the first pamphlet. “And those of us who became complacent because we have good jobs and we’re able to live in places we once could not live, attend schools we used to not be able to attend. ... We made it because of the blood, the sweat, the tears of our ancestors. We made it because people in our past, who stood up and said that we would no longer tolerate injustice.”
As the crowd dispersed from the sanctuary, all were welcomed into the church’s hospitality room for a feast of fried chicken, greens and fixings.
On display nearby, just outside where the worshippers had gathered, was an enlarged map pinpointing the newly designated tour stops in Clarendon County. Their home. Their history.