More than 30 teachers from across the United States participating in a workshop at a Lowcountry college spent a day touring Summerton recently.
The University of South Carolina Beaufort brought the attendees of its 2015 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute to see the “crucible of the school desegregation movement,” said program instructor Brent Morris.
“This is a three-week long institute,” he said. “We focused this year primarily on what we called the Second Reconstruction, which is the period after the Reconstruction after the Civil War. There is a lot of emphasis on the Civil Rights Movement and the progress made as the south settled back into some of its old ways after the Civil War.”
Teachers, he said, applied for the institute and were accepted based on grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“We have them from all over, including California, New Hampshire, Maine, Wisconsin, Georgia, New York, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Colorado, Mississippi, Minnesota, Kansas and right here from South Carolina,” Morris said.
During their visit to Summerton, the teachers-turned-students visited the homes and lands occupied by those petitioners who formed the basis of the Briggs v. Elliott lawsuit that was ultimately wrapped into the Brown v. Board of Education case which ended nationwide school desegregation.
“These are mainly high school teachers,” said Institute Coordinator Deloris Pringle. “We have one media arts teacher. These teachers will take what they learn back to their classrooms. It’s one thing to teach history, but it’s another thing to go back and then have been there to these places you’re teaching about.”
Nathaniel Briggs, the youngest child of Harry and Eliza Briggs, from which the Briggs v. Elliott case gains its plaintiff name, said he’s excited to take part in the endeavor.
“This is a part of history that’s frequently glossed over,” he said. Now a resident of Teaneck, New Jersey, Briggs tries to visit his hometown at least six times a year.
“It’s my dream to move back home,” he said. “You can still see the farming community in which I grew up. There’s still a lot of land to be occupied, and much of it has a historical value.”
Briggs said the Briggs v. Elliott case eventually culminated in the “second Emancipation Proclamation for this country.”
“Black folks suffered for equal access to education,” he said. “The teachers did the best they could with what was afforded to them.”
At the time of the Briggs decision, Clarendon County was comprised of 22 school districts.
“Some were just buildings on a plantation,” Briggs said. “Some were just schools in someone’s kitchen or field up to sixth grade. Briggs was part of an effort to get better access to education.”
Briggs said the quest was not at all about integrating the schools, although that was the ultimate outcome.
“My parents just wanted a school bus,” he said.
Frequently in the early 20th century, black children were forced, particularly in rural areas, to walk as many as nine miles to school in one direction, passing white schools along the way. Beatrics Brown Rivers, daughter of Henry and Thelma Brown, remembers running from buses carrying white children.
“They would taunt us as we walked, or they’d throw things at us,” said Rivers, who was 13 when the Briggs case first began, she told the teachers with the Summer Institute. “The bus driver would laugh at us and taunt us. We’d run to the corn so we could get away from them.”
Rivers said every parent who signed the petition, including her own, were eventually fired from their jobs.
“Every parent who had a job, everyone who signed that petition, they were fired,” she said. “My father worked as a janitor for the white school. He was the last person of that group to be fired. He played piano for school functions. The superintendent almost begged my father to remove his name, but he lasted five years.”
Rivers said her father was finally fired in 1955, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal schools are inherently unequal.
“My father was also a blacksmith and a sugar cane farmer,” she said.
Ultimately, most of the Briggs’ petition families left Summerton. River settled in Washington, D.C., where she attended university.
“I’m proud to say that with the education I had in Summerton, I didn’t need any remedial courses,” she said. “But I stayed away for 40 years. I’ve been back almost 20 now.”
Rivers said the whole ordeal – and growing up during the Briggs v. Elliott case – taught her one distinct lesson.
“It taught me that we have to work together as a group, and that we can’t depend on anyone but ourselves,” she said.
Otis Richburg, son of Rebecca Richburg – who signed the petition separate from her husband – said he praised his mother’s decision.
“My father, who ran the gristmill and was a blacksmith, was blackballed, essentially,” Richburg said. “He couldn’t get any credit. It ruined his reputation.”
Richburg eventually served in the Armed Forces during the Vietnam Era and joined the New York National Guard. Now 69, he has moved back to Summerton.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes, good and bad,” he said. “You know, Summerton was more lively in the 1950s and 1960s than even Manning was. Now it’s a little like a ghost town.”
Dr. Bernard Powers of the College of Charleston led a panel with Briggs, Rivers, Richburg and other Briggs petitioners’ children, telling the students they had an “awesome opportunity” to hear about these experiences almost first-hand.
“You know, we knew something was going on,” Rivers said. “But we weren’t necessarily allowed in the adults’ business. We knew there were meetings, and of course, we’d come up after school and all these cars and wagons would be in the yard. But we weren’t in the mix. It wouldn’t be until much later that we knew the significance of everything going on.”
Power said he appreciated the tours taken while the institute was in Summerton on July 29.
“I have a better sense of the homes and places that I’ve heard about, a better geographical sense, that is,” he said. “It has made the things I’ve read on the page really come alive.”
Powers asked the Briggs petitioners’ children if they thought school desegregation was a way “the elite of the time kept former slaves’ descendants from being more than sharecroppers and farmers?”
“I do think it was a systematic plan to keep us separated and ignorant,” said Ivan Lawson. “If we got the opportunity to read as well as they did, then we wouldn’t always have that slave mentality. If we didn’t have the opportunity to be educated as well as they were educated, then we couldn’t do better. We would always be under their thumb.”
He said private, mostly white schools formed after the Brown v. Board decision continued that philosophy.
“It’s like they took their toys and went home,” Lawson said. “They essentially said, ‘If you do these things, you won’t be doing them with us.’”
“Those still in charge in the south, many of them wanted to have slave labor or cheap labor,” she said. “Just like before the Civil War, where there were laws to keep the slaves from reading, having segregation was a way of having the black population to know their place, so to speak. If our grandparents and our parents had not risen up to do something about it, it would’ve never changed.”
Briggs said he believes folks his father and mothers’ ages signed the petition after seeing a “new world” while fighting in World War II.
“My father served in the military during World War II in Europe,” he said. “He saw where some German prisoners of war were treated better at home than the blacks were. And then they saw a different world in some places in Europe. When they came home, they wanted that better world here.”
“Our parents were simply tired of being sick and tired,” he said. “They said, ‘Come hell or high water, we’re not going to live under these conditions anymore.’”