To enter the State Museum’s newly opened exhibition, “COURAGE: The Struggle to End Segregation and the Guts To Fight For It,” is to travel back in time.
Birds and crickets chirp as the rural landscape in 1950s Clarendon County rises up in photographs that show the march of endless cotton fields, plodding mule teams and dusty roads. In one photograph, spindly-legged children watch as a boy milks a cow in the shadow of a dilapidated wooden shack.
The region, said historian John Egerton, was “a flat, dusty throwback to yesterday’s South, a sprawling rural patchwork of cottonfields and piney woods,” that would, strangely enough, become the place where the nation’s first real desegregation battle would be fought.
Those first stirrings among African-American farmers and menial workers came in the late 1940s with a call for a school bus. When they were turned away, the black parents petitioned for decent schools and enlisted some of the nation’s best legal minds to help them get them.
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Before the battle was over, the petitioners would suffer mightily, losing their livelihoods as the white power structure fired them from jobs, refused to gin their cotton and prevented them from buying basic goods.
But the school desegregation case that came to be know as Briggs v. Elliott would make its way from the county seat of Manning all the way to the Supreme Court, one of five lawsuits folded into the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. That decision overturned the long-held doctrine of separate but equal facilities for whites and blacks as laid out in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson.
The exhibition was a powerful reminder of the past to Sandy Macon, a retired military veteran who came with her daughter and two grandchildren, to wander through the interactive setting.
“I’m looking at stuff and I’m bringing back memories,” said Macon, who grew up in Union and now lives in Columbia. “We never had mistreatment but we knew our place.”
The State Museum’s exhibition, which runs through July 26, was created by the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte and funded by a grant from Bank of America.
It includes artifacts and interactive components, and powerful video testimony from the three children of the Rev. J.A. DeLaine, the African Methodist Episcopal minister who led the fight in Clarendon County.
The DeLaine’s house in Summerton was burned to the ground and his church in Lake City also torched before he was forced to flee from the Ku Klux Klan and others who threatened him with death. He never returned to South Carolina.
The minister’s study is replicated, complete with a typewriter and family photos as well as a shotgun above the doorway. The exhibit also includes a classroom reminiscent of the shacks that served as schools for African-American children in Clarendon. (The DeLaine children noted that their mother, Mattie DeLaine, had 96 children in her first-grade class, although most were unable to come to school every day.)
Karen Walsh, a visitor from Jacksonville, Fla., looked over a portrait of U.S. District Judge Waties Waring, the federal judge credited with first equalizing pay among white and black teachers, and then hearing the Briggs v. Elliott school desegregation case.
He was the lone dissenter among a three-judge panel to hear the Briggs case and his dissent rang throughout the final Supreme Court decision in Brown. For his trouble, he was ostracized in his native Charleston and eventually moved away in retirement.
“It’s so strange,” said Walsh, as she observed accounts of the legal separation that dominated the South during much of the 20th century. She grew up in England, she said, and was not aware of the desegregation battle as she grew up.
The exhibit is presented at the State Museum through the support of The Nord Family Foundation, Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, Central Carolina Community Foundation and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough law firm.