Civil Rights in Columbia

November 30, 2013

Son of Clarendon school board secretary in 1950s writes book about Harry Briggs

Bill Carson of Hilton Head Island is an unlikely person to write a book about the wrong side of the tracks, and the wrong side of history.

Bill Carson of Hilton Head Island is an unlikely person to write a book about the wrong side of the tracks, and the wrong side of history.

He came from the “right side of the tracks.” He was raised the son of a powerful man who planted 600 acres of cotton in Clarendon County when cotton was king, and white supremacy was the rule of law and strictly enforced way of life.

Yet Carson’s new book from WestBow Press focuses on the other side of the tracks — the sharecroppers his father needed to bring in the money crop in the searing heat of Summerton.

When Carson was a boy in the 1950s, sharecroppers were his closest neighbors. But they lived in a different world with no electricity, no running water, pitiful schools, and maybe making $3 a day for picking 100 pounds of cotton.

Sharecroppers were deliberately stuck in a system that for all practical purposes extended slavery a century beyond the Civil War. Southern society considered them ignorant and helpless, but happy.

Southern society was wrong.

Carson shows sharecroppers to be people of dignity, good sense and great courage.

He calls the book “The Emancipation Procrastination: The Era That Changed America Forever.” It is labeled historical fiction, but Carson says it’s all based on fact. It is a fetching and warm tale of a young sharecropper family. The book’s fiction is woven into the reality of the mid-20th century South that many whites today would just as soon pretend never happened.

Carson said his father was a kind man who was well-respected by African Americans. But he was on the wrong side of history.

And in Clarendon County, young Bill Carson witnessed firsthand a major turning point in American history.

Briggs v. Elliott

Bill Carson has lived in the same house on Hilton Head for 30 years.

He studied horticulture and landscape design at Clemson and went to work for Sea Pines a day after leaving Fort Bragg, N.C., on March 14, 1965. He was in charge of landscaping and outside maintenance as the resort on the southern tip of Hilton Head began to bloom.

He and his wife, Frederica Carson, reared two daughters here, and he coached in the Gators youth football program for a decade.

But it was working with landscape architect Robert Marvin and golf course designers Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus, and directing the Heritage golf tournament for four years that gave Carson a front-row seat for Hilton Head history.

When he was a boy, his school-teacher mother told him to pay attention because he was witnessing history in his own home.

Carson overheard the telephone conversations and listened as visitors, including NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall and politician Strom Thurmond, came to the house to talk to his father, J.D. Carson. They came because his father was secretary and later chairman of the Clarendon County school board that clung to segregated schools, but unwittingly helped kill them.

The board under chairman Roderick W. Elliott refused parent Levi Pearson’s plea to provide a bus for black children to get to their inferior, segregated schools. Then in 1950 the board was sued to equalize facilities, teachers’ salaries, books and supplies. That case, known as Briggs v. Elliott, became one of five collectively called Brown v. Board of Education that resulted in the unanimous 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that “separate but equal” in public education is unconstitutional.

At the time of the ruling, Carson’s father was chairman of the school board.

And one of Harry and Eliza Briggs’ sons was Bill Carson’s closest childhood friend.

‘Fill in the blanks’

White people didn’t take kindly to the blacks in Summerton stepping out of their “place,” and the hammer came down.

Harry Briggs, the first of more than 20 adults to sign the petition seeking equal treatment, was fired from his job on Christmas Eve at the Sinclair gas station. Briggs was a Navy veteran and, unlike the sharecroppers, owned his own home. But after he stepped out of his “place,” his wife also lost her job and businesses refused to hire him, or even sell to him. He had to move his family, first to Miami and then to New York.

The same thing happened to other plaintiffs, as well as the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, who led the movement.

But Harry Briggs, the father of his fishing buddy, moved Carson “to fill in the blanks of history.” He writes a back-story – a story he lived and saw – that shows why Briggs would knowlingly risk everything he had to end segregation.

It turns out that the landscaper whose mother never let him use incorrect English has been writing down childhood experiences for much of his life.

“This was a story that had been in my mind 25 years or longer,” Carson said. “I started 10 years ago to write it.”

Carson says fewer than five people could have written the particular story he knew. He said he did it so people would recognize the courage of Harry Briggs.

Even after Harry and Eliza Briggs, Joseph DeLaine and Levi Pearson posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal 10 years ago, a nation fixated on Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. still doesn’t know what happened in Summerton.

“Something inside me was eating me up to do the book,” Carson said. “Harry Briggs is a hero and nobody knows his name.”

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