I noted in The Post and Courier of May 5 that a group of parents in Charleston County Constituent School District 20 have called a second meeting to discuss the future of Burke High School. I was encouraged to learn that those parents — some of whom have not sent their children to Burke — now want to meet with other parents to share ideas.
I’m also, however, concerned about the sudden interest in Burke. Mayoral candidate Maurice Washington suggested that Burke become a charter school, and a state charter school group is investigating ways to make that happen. And a March 29 Post and Courier editorial urged that we “think big” on Burke’s future while noting that “Burke has proud history that should be recognized and honored.”
References to “proud history” create an ominous sense of deja vu in many segments of Charleston’s black community. Those words often mean that there are already preliminary plans for “progress” that decimates or does away with historically black neighborhoods or institutions. Remembering “proud history” has sometimes been a convenient strategy to mitigate outrage that something cherished by the minority community has been claimed by the majority community.
I share that concern with those discussing the future of Burke, and I offer some suggestions to assure that at the end of the discussions, there’s still a Burke High School that not only respects the school’s history but also builds on that history.
Burke was established in 1911 in a grudging effort to create a black public school with the stated purpose, as expressed by the then superintendent, of training “cooks, maids and delivery boys.” Dedicated educators, parents and students refused to follow that game plan and because of their efforts, generations of black achievers and advocates for progress graduated from Burke.
Any future plans for Burke should build upon what those dedicated educators, parents and students did in their time.
Burke should again be a center of excellence for those seeking to further their education at the college level and those seeking a foundation for careers in traditional and modern trades and technologies. Any future plans should also assure that Burke will continue to be a traditional public high school and not a charter school, since Burke is the only traditional public high school left on the peninsula.
Those discussing the future of Burke should also be frank and honest about the inconvenient and unspoken truth that some white parents were — and still are — loath to send their children to predominately black schools. That’s why private schools flourished in the initial days of public school desegregation.
Because of that, Burke was subsequently neglected in terms of the funding needed for enough teachers and broad course offerings. Some parents who love Burke had no choice but to send their children to schools that offered the courses they needed, and the enrollment plunged.
That inconvenient and unspoken truth is also why the Academic Magnet High School — which was originally housed on the Burke campus — was moved to another campus, and why those who pushed for the costly renovation of the district’s Rivers campus refused to consider having the Charter School for Math and Science share Burke’s campus — there was, and still is plenty of room. That was one of the arguments made for moving the Lowcountry Technical Academy from the Rivers campus to the Burke campus.
The hurdle of white parents sending their children to schools with significant black populations needs to be cleared in any discussion of Burke’s future. Virulent gentrification is changing the face of the peninsula, but there’s still a significant African-American population that shouldn’t be pushed aside or treated as an educational afterthought.
I hope that those debating Burke’s future let those stated concerns help to frame the conversation, so that Burke High School doesn’t join the ranks of schools like Sterling High in Greenville, Howard High in Georgetown and my alma mater, Booker T. Washington High in Columbia.
Those and many other schools were closed in the wake of desegregation, and history is now remembered on plaques and historical markers. Burke deserves a better fate, because plaques and historical markers are little more than tombstones that show what was killed and buried in the name of “progress.”
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is presiding elder, the Beaufort District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and first vice-president of the Charleston Branch NAACP.