Charleston County classroom

Baptist Hill High School 9th graders laugh as they listen to an AP Human Georgraphy lesson last winter. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

In light of the controversy over racial disparities and discrimination in the Charleston County School District, it might be useful to look back at its history. Some in the media and CCSD critics often claim we have “a segregated school system.” The Rev. Joseph A. Darby opined in these pages that the district is “solidly segregated.” But is this true?

Before 1951, 21 independent school districts operated within the county. In 1951, the General Assembly reduced that to eight. A federal court found these new district lines “all followed natural geographic patterns unique to Charleston County.”

The eight new districts had widely disparate funding because of widely contrasting tax bases. In general, the wealth was concentrated in North Charleston and West Ashley, while the poor districts served rural areas, such as mostly black Johns and Wadmalaw islands.

The modern Charleston County School District was created by the General Assembly in 1968 in one of the most emotionally charged political battles of the 20th century. Act 340, which merged the eight districts into one, was seen as a huge victory for progressives and the black community and was opposed by those seeking to preserve segregation.

The law equalized funding, but it kept the eight districts as “constituent districts” and assigned pupils within them (so North Charleston children continued to attend North Charleston schools). Act 340 meant there were no longer poor majority-black school districts here. All Charleston County schools and students are funded by the entire county. School board members are elected countywide.

A 1964 federal court order had provided “freedom of choice” to black students in the city of Charleston, which meant they could attend white schools, but this accomplished little real desegregation. In the 1970s, however, the federal Office for Civil Rights demanded that the district totally desegregate each of the eight constituent districts, and it did.

Robert Rosen

Charleston attorney and historian Robert Rosen. Provided

Then in 1981, the U.S. Justice Department sued CCSD claiming “the public schools in Charleston County are substantially segregated” by race and that there were all-black schools in some areas, such as Johns Island and North Charleston. There were no all-white schools in 1981 (every majority-white school in the 1980s was at least 25% percent black, except Sullivan’s Island Elementary).

After 33 days of testimony and 80 witnesses, including national experts, the District Court held that Act 340 was not enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose and that the constituent districts did not have a racially discriminatory effect. It found that the district had eliminated all vestiges of segregation in the former system.

The court held that the schools were racially balanced within the constituent districts and that Charleston County, as a whole, was as racially balanced as geography and demographics would reasonably allow.

The court also found no disparities between schools based on race. It noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had always held that “the mere fact that a school system may be predominantly black and therefore have some or even a large percentage of predominantly black schools does not equate to illegal segregation.”

Indeed, the Office of Civil Rights had approved the 1970 desegregation plans, which were carried out by dedicated CCSD employees of all races. The court held that the district was in fact desegregated, and that its attendance zones were drawn in a nondiscriminatory manner.

“The existence of predominately black schools in Districts 1, 20 and 23 is not evidence of ‘present segregation,’” the court said. “Such schools are predominately black because the student enrollment in the Constituent Districts in which they are located is predominately black, and not because of any intent by the Constituent Board or CCSD to assign students to either retain the racial character of a school or designate it anew as a ‘black’ or ‘white’ school.”

The court reached the same conclusion about faculty hiring, assignment and facilities. While black schools were not given their fair share before desegregation, the court held: “There was no evidence which indicates that such discrimination continued into the 1970s and 1980s after the OCR-approved desegregation plans were implemented. In recent years, predominately black schools have, if anything, received slightly more funding on a per capita basis, and substantially more funding if funds from federal programs are included.”

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The findings of the federal district court were affirmed on appeal in 1992.

In 2020, there is a widespread perception that the Charleston public schools are segregated by improper motives, incompetence or the lingering era of segregation. Given recent rhetoric, newcomers here might get the false impression that local schools were never desegregated.

The erroneous impression likely stems from a report the School Board commissioned, a study titled “Clemson University Inclusion and Equity Report.” Nowhere does the Clemson report discuss the massive school desegregation in the 1970s, nor does it mention the desegregation litigation that dominated local headlines in the 1980s and 1990s. Its authors seem unaware that the issue was litigated, though the cases are cited in the appendix.

Instead, the Clemson report calls the constituent district lines “highly gerrymandered school zones established by Act 340,” which “deepened division by race, poverty, and political status.” This, of course, is the exact opposite of what the federal courts found and a totally inaccurate history. In fact, the district created Buist Academy, the magnet school near the center of the current controversy, and other magnet schools in the 1980s in an attempt to settle the desegregation lawsuit and further integrate local schools.

No one should dispute that racial disparities persist, nor should efforts to increase diversity and aid to minority students be criticized. The entire community wants to “do something” about these existing disparities.

But the notion that Charleston County failed to desegregate its public schools, that its system is “solidly segregated” and that district leaders since the mid-1970s somehow discriminated against minorities is not borne out by the facts.

Robert Rosen is a Charleston attorney who served as general counsel for the Charleston County School District in its school desegregation case. He is also the author of “A Short History of Charleston.”