Briggs v. Elliott brought us Brown v. Board of Education. Here’s how.
Black parents and children in Clarendon County, South Carolina risked everything to destroy legalized segregation.
The Way It Is
Swamps. Pine forests. Corn, cotton and tobacco fields. Hog farms. Flat dirt roads bordered by the fields and the forests. Pellagra, caused by malnutrition. Malaria, caused by the swamps and bays harboring mosquitos—in 1944, 39 percent of people living on the north shore of Lake Marion test positive. Illiteracy—at least a tenth of white residents and a third of Black residents can’t read or write. This is Clarendon County, South Carolina.
When the weather is good, Robert and Carrie Georgia hitch their two mules to their wagon, call on their six children and ride from Friendship to St. Paul townships. Normel, the firstborn, hates the night’s return, the mules’ pathway lit only by a lantern. White men roar by, firing shotguns out of car windows, speeding away into U-turns, returning to shoot again, careless of terrified children or panicking mules. The Georgias are Black; the gunslingers are white.
When the weather is bad, Levi Pearson starts up his pickup—for the children of Davis Station, not for farm work. South Carolina provides bus transportation only to white children. Clarendon County runs more than 30 school buses for white children, none for Black children. Ferdinand Pearson walks seven miles, one way, to Mount Zion School, which has two rooms and one stove. Siblings Jesse and Piney Pearson walk nine miles, one way, to Scott’s Branch in Summerton. This is why Levi Pearson puts boards across the back of his truck—to get children to school.
Next, he, brother Hammett Pearson, neighbor Joseph Lemon and others buy a used bus but can’t keep it running. In 1946, 17 parents buy a slightly better bus and at meetings once a week collect money to keep it going. They ask the county school board—all county school trustees are white, although many rural school districts serve only Black students—for help: gas for the truck, money toward the bus, its gas and repairs. They are turned down.
Change is coming Clarendon’s way, a revolution of sorts. It cranks up with that small request for a bus.
Separate, Not Equal
The white men believed, since white people had more money and thus paid more taxes, that support must go to schools for white children. In the 1940s in Clarendon County white children attended schools with a teacher for every grade, class sizes no higher than 30 students, brick schools with heat, indoor toilets that flushed, water fountains, textbooks, gyms and auditoriums and libraries. Black children attended school in abandoned hunting or Masonic lodges and drafty cabins adjacent to churches. Their parents paid tuition and book rent, even though the textbooks were white children’s discards. The Black children brought coal or wood to burn in oil drums. They dug and used privies. They toted water from wells. Scott’s Branch in Summerton served all grades. One first grade teacher handled 67 students; a second grade teacher dealt with 79. The school’s 700 students shared 14 privies. South Carolina spent $221 annually for each white student, $45 for each Black student. The schools serving 2,296 white children in Clarendon County were worth $390,600; the schools serving 6,081 Black children were worth $64,285.
This was “separate but equal,” established through the South’s interpretation of Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld state laws requiring segregation. The NAACP chipped away at this. In 1934, Charles Hamilton Houston, special counsel of the NAACP, took himself and a movie camera to South Carolina to document inequalities between white-only and Black-only schools. Houston planned for NAACP attorneys to attack Plessy v. Ferguson, and South Carolina’s schools proved that separate was nowhere near equal. Then, Hamilton believed, NAACP attorneys could attack segregation, using the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise that no state shall deny any person equal protection of the laws.
In 1946 in Atlanta, the NAACP gathered key players to discuss education lawsuits in the South. Among the topics was bus transportation. Attending was Rev. James Myles Hinton, president of the South Carolina Conference of Branches of the NAACP. Hinton had fostered lawsuits that successfully challenged the state’s all-white primary, inequitable teacher pay and the absence of a law school for Black students. In April 1947, he issued a challenge: find a plaintiff to test discriminatory bus transportation. In June, Hinton met with the Pearson brothers; the Reverend Joseph Armstrong DeLaine, a Summerton educator and minister ready to take up the challenge; and Harold Boulware, Columbia counsel for the NAACP. In July, Boulware mailed a petition requesting bus transportation to the district, county and state education boards. In October, in a fiery speech about the fraud of “separate but equal,” Hinton obtained the approval of his 51 branches to pursue a lawsuit.
White officials ignored the bus request, then stalled. In March 1948, Boulware and Thurgood Marshall, now NAACP special counsel, filed Levi Pearson’s lawsuit on behalf of his son James. Officials challenged Pearson’s right to sue. A road ran through Pearson’s property: he paid taxes in more than one district, his children attended schools in more than one district, but his house sat in one district while he sued in another. Marshall dropped the suit.
But no white man forgot. The Pearsons lived close—Hammett and son Jesse and Levi and son Ferdinand farming nearby acreage—and were up most nights guarding their homes, answering nightly gunfire with shots in the air. Their children slept on the floor. No one purchased Pearson timber. Credit was denied as were seed purchases and loans or rentals of farm machinery. The Pearsons made no apologies. “I believe God wants me to do it. God wants me to make the sacrifices,” Levi Pearson said often. Ferdinand Pearson said the families grew to believe, “The thing that had stopped the case, it was meant to be. It didn’t actually kill the suit; it made it better.”
They were right. At the 1948 NAACP state conference, Hinton declared, “Equality of citizenship must begin in the school system and our branches are instructed to carry on a campaign both in the Negro communities and in the cities and towns to end segregation in the elementary, high school, college and university levels.” Marshall told a Summerton committee—six Pearsons, DeLaine and Rev. James Washington Seals—that the NAACP was done with bus lawsuits. The goal now: desegregated schools. The Clarendon folk wanted to continue, but Marshall had his doubts. The county offered a perfect and perfectly horrendous example of separate and unequal, but potential petitioners were so impoverished and so vulnerable.
And South Carolina was so steeped in white supremacy. State law in the 18th and 19th centuries prohibited enslaved persons from learning to read and punished anyone teaching them. White people with wealth hired tutors or sent children to private academies; other white parents disdained a smattering of “pauper schools” for impoverished and orphaned white children. A special committee in 1846, appalled at South Carolinians’ indifference to education, stated, “There is scarcely a State in the Union in which so great apathy exists on the education of the people, as in the state of South Carolina.” The 1868 Reconstruction constitution, written by “radical Republicans,” promised a uniform system of public schools open at least six months each year “to all the children and the youths of the State, without regard to race and color.” But the 1895 constitution returned to the white supremacist view that Black people of any age should be uneducated, disenfranchised, disempowered and—through peonage, sharecropping and Jim Crow customs and laws—educationally, economically and socially trapped. The constitution declared, “Separate schools shall be provided for children of the white and colored races, and no child of either race shall ever be permitted to attend a school provided for children of the other race.”
In World War I, an intelligence test of troops found half of all South Carolina recruits illiterate. In 1920, South Carolina spent less per pupil than any state in the nation. In World War II, a third of men drafted from South Carolina were rejected for illiteracy. In 1940, just 3.6 percent of Black students completed high school, but then only 36 high schools existed for them among the state’s more than 1,600 school districts.
Signing and Suffering
On Nov. 11, 1949, an “equal everything” petition, as DeLaine dubbed it, arrived from the NACCP. Petitioners walked from St. Mark AME Church to the home of Harry and Eliza Briggs, where 107 parents and their children signed. Harry and Eliza Briggs signed first for “educational advantages and facilities equal in all respects to that which is provided for whites,” followed by children Harry Jr., Thomas Lee and Katherine. Eliza Briggs was fired from the Windsor Motel. On Christmas Eve Harry Briggs’s employer handed him a carton of cigarettes and fired him. Annie and William Gibson signed, as did children Maxine, Harold and William Jr. The Gibsons were sharecroppers, often a lifetime arrangement. The landowner kicked them out. Annie Gibson was fired from her motel job. She and Eliza Briggs found short-lived posts at the Summerton Motel, where the manager said if he didn’t fire them, the city would block the motel’s water and sewer.
The Georgias signed, as did children Charlie and Jervine. Robert Georgia farmed land inherited from Wash Georgia, an enslaved grandfather who raised and sold turkeys after freedom. The Georgias grew peas and beans and sold them door-to-door and at market. They still owed money on their wagon; the dealer temporarily confiscated it and threatened to take the mules, too. But Robert Georgia often told his eldest child Normel, “I’m willing to die for my rights.” He had proved it before. In 1948, Robert and Carrie Georgia registered to vote after the court-ordered end of the white primary opened voter registration. Robert Georgia called Normel home to register. For Normel’s safety, his father and friends escorted him to and from the polls. Even so, armed white men pursued them; registering to vote remained life-threatening.
Lee Richardson, a sharecropper with one year of school, signed, as did children Annie, James, Charles, Dorothy and Jackson. His feed and seed debts were called due. When the livestock dealer threatened to take his mules, neighbors took up a collection and paid the debt. When the family was evicted, John E. McDonald, a Black farmer and landowner, purchased for them land and a home.
Hazel and Zelia Ragin and daughter Sarah Ellen signed on the last page. Zelia Ragin, a school cook, was fired. Hazel Ragin, the county’s only house painter, lost all his white customers. But the green-eyed Ragin owned his own home and land, hunted and fished, trained bird dogs and served as an expert guide to wealthy visiting sportsmen. The children felt safe because their father was a known marksman. “We were fighting all our lives,” said Andrew Lee, the youngest. “We survived.”
Three ministers, all active in the NAACP, all educated, all teachers—DeLaine, Seals, and Edward Eugene Richburg—served as point men. They located, encouraged and counseled petitioners. Of the three, only Richburg, minister at rural Liberty Hill AME Church, signed. His parishioners patrolled the church and parsonage. DeLaine took advice not to sign. Still, he, his wife, two sisters and a niece were fired from teaching jobs. Seals did not have children in school, but St. Mark was host to in-town meetings. He and wife Rebecca were fired from their teaching jobs. Bankers called due debts and mortgages; the Seals lost their hog farm. The Ku Klux Klan regularly encircled their home, so Rebecca and grandson James Morris Seals left for New York. Seals said, “They got my teaching job, they fired my wife, too, but we ain’t quivering.”
This was easy for the white people, who owned the land, the feed and seed businesses, the farm machinery, the hardware, clothing and grocery stores, who bankrolled the loans and mortgages, who were united in their hold on white supremacy. It was easy because the petitioners’ names were posted at the Manning Courthouse, 10 miles away. It was easy to take everything from people who had so little.
On May 16, 1950, the NAACP filed Briggs v. Elliott in federal court in Charleston. In July, the NAACP gathered attorneys and Southern NAACP branch leaders and conference presidents, including Hinton, president of South Carolina’s state conference. Those attending decided all education lawsuits should seek the final relief of “nonsegregation.” In October, the national NAACP board agreed. So did Judge J. Waties Waring. An eighth-generation Charlestonian done with “the false doctrine of white supremacy,” Waring had dealt with the all-white primary, teacher pay and Black students’ access to a law school. On November 17, Waring dismissed Briggs v. Elliott without prejudice so Marshall could file again and challenge segregation.
In December, a white woman warned DeLaine that men meeting at her home had planned his murder: an assailant would wound or kill him in front of witnesses who would vouch that DeLaine was the instigator. Just as she said, a man picked a fight—“Me or you got to go to hell today”—while five others watched. DeLaine feigned a gun in his pocket as petitioner James Brown drove up in his oil truck, “like an angel from heaven,” DeLaine later wrote. DeLaine leapt into the truck, where Brown announced he had resigned from his job rather than be fired. The Brown family left for Detroit.
New Petition, New ‘Reign Of Terror’
In an effort to limit devastation in the second round, the NAACP wanted just 20 adult petitioners and only one adult per household. Of the 20 parents and 46 children challenging the segregation laws, which “denied equal educational advantages in violation of the Constitution,” 17 adults boldly signed again. The NAACP filed Briggs v. Elliott on Dec. 22, 1950.
In March, a crop duster scattered KKK-signed handbills, perhaps directed at DeLaine, that “any subsequence [sic] court will be just as perilous as this one….Tell your ‘darky’ supporters if they want to die with you come and witness for you.” In April, a white man beat to death Rimini resident James McKnight, who had stopped by the roadside to urinate, a common need given segregated restrooms. The assailant dared relatives in McKnight’s car to get out and later denied their account of the assault. “Hit by another man,” said the death certificate. No charges were filed. DeLaine said McKnight was mistaken for a petitioner, a fatality in a “reign of terror.”
On May 28, 1951, the DeLaine, Pearson, Briggs and Gibson families joined others in a caravan to Charleston for the Briggs arguments. Outside the courthouse, Broad Street filled with Black people. Inside, 500 jammed the corridors; the luckier stood shoulder to shoulder in the courtroom. This time Waring was one of three federal judges. On June 23, 1951, the District Court ruled that Black schools were inferior, ordered South Carolina to equalize facilities but denied Black students admission to all-white schools. Waring wrote a furious dissent that included a stand-alone, underlined statement: “Segregation is per se inequality.” On appeal Briggs v. Elliott headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the first of five lawsuits to challenge segregation in what became Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Gov. James F. Byrnes consistently argued, “This is a white man’s country and will always remain a white man’s country.” A Supreme Court justice from 1941-1942, Byrnes understood the consequences of the NAACP’s recent desegregation wins in higher education lawsuits. In a preemptive strike, Byrnes sought to improve schools while retaining segregation through a three-cent sales tax, the state’s first, to expand school programs; a $75 million bond issue to improve or build schools; a statewide busing program; and higher teacher pay. He urged white voters to approve an amendment ending the state’s constitutional responsibility to provide public schools. They did, two to one, given his warning that courts could force “the mixing of races in the schools.” Byrnes also reportedly offered to sell, at a bargain price, all the Black schools to the AME church.
Willie Mood Stukes Sr., wife Gardenia, and children Willie Jr., Gardenia, called “Denia,” and Louis had signed the first petition. A senior mechanic, Stukes felt furious when fired from his gas station post and began repairing cars at home. The family signed the second petition, too, despite a promise of employment if Stukes removed their names. On January 13, 1951, during Saturday work, a jack flipped, and, as Denia watched, a car fell on her father. With the help of neighbors she and her mother lifted the car, but the Navy veteran was dead. Months later the family joined relatives in Philadelphia. Years later Denia said, “They believed they could make it better for their children, and they were willing to risk everything.”
Mary Oliver and children Daisy and Louis Jr. signed the first and second petitions. Louis Oliver Sr. owned Oliver’s café, where wife Mary cooked and the couple coached voter registration. He also farmed, owned a fish camp and managed juke boxes throughout the county. When vendors refused to supply the businesses, Louis Oliver paid friends to purchase what he needed. At night, with a gun and a truck, its headlights off, he picked up the goods. In September 1951, Louis Oliver died of a cerebral hemorrhage. In October 1951, DeLaine’s Summerton home burned down as firefighters watched, saying their firehoses didn’t reach. Daisy Oliver dreamed the Oliver home would burn too. Life would have been easier for a widow who removed her name, but Mary Oliver didn’t.
Despite or because of constant reprisals, local NAACP membership climbed from 168 to 453. Briggs v. Elliott bounced back and forth between the District and Supreme courts along with cases from Kansas, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Briggs was heard on December 9, 1952 and in a reargument regarding the Fourteenth Amendment on December 7, 1953.
Finally, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court spoke: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” But this was not the end. The Court wanted to hear arguments in its next term about how and when. On May 31, 1955, in its second ruling, known as Brown II, the Supreme Court left implementation vague, giving local authorities primary responsibility to admit plaintiffs to public schools “with all deliberate speed.” The 1955-56 school year began with armed white men guarding Summerton’s still segregated schools.
White Citizens’ Councils formed throughout the state, more than 40,000 white men organizing to pick off desegregation petitioners through economic reprisals and other forms of repression and intimidation. Gov. George Bell Timmerman Jr. signed legislation that prohibited hiring and required the firing of any city, county or state employee belonging to the NAACP. The KKK threatened Rev. Richburg with an abduction and whipping. He was fired from a teaching job, and five relatives were fired from their jobs at schools and a cotton gin. Vendors again stopped supplying Black-owned businesses. When suppliers demanded Mary Oliver remove her name, she told them “Never” and invoked her husband: “I promised him that I’d be a woman.”
DeLaine, whose bishop had transferred him to Lake City, escaped Florence County in a high-speed chase after the KKK’s Operation Shoot ‘Em Up focused on his family. On October 5, his church, St. James AME burned down; on October 7, a KKK-signed missive threatened, “We have made plans to move you if it takes dynimite [sic] to do it.” On October 10, their home under a barrage of gunfire, wife Mattie DeLaine escaped to a neighbor’s while DeLaine shot back to mark an assailant’s car, dashed to his own car and fled. Upon reaching New York, DeLaine surrendered to authorities and took refuge in the home of AME Bishop D. Ward Nichols, who told Gov. Averell Harriman that DeLaine faced “almost certain chain gang conviction and death at the hands of his enemies, the WCC, which is nothing more or less than the Ku Klux Klan reborn.” New York refused to extradite DeLaine, indicted for assault with a deadly weapon.
In 1958 and twice in 1959, parents asked again unsuccessfully for desegregation and then for Black students’ reassignment to all-white schools. In 1965, five Black students enrolled in Summerton High School under court order. In 1966, Rita Mae McDonald graduated, the first black student to do so—but only after father John E. McDonald and the NAACP called in the Justice Department to stop students’ harassment and teachers’ plots to fail her.
Henry McDonald, who owned his home and land to farm, signed one of the many desegregation petitions of the 1950s. He lost all credit and had to travel for farm supplies or pay cash. When the White Citizens’ Council ratcheted up retaliations, he drove repeatedly to Washington, DC, and New York City to pick up and deliver food and clothing donations. Like the other petitioners, who had added perseverance to courage, “He stayed with it through the suffering,” said daughter Shirley. “He said it was time, and he was going to take a stand. It was time, and it was right.”
Claudia Smith Brinson is the author of Stories of Struggle: The Clash Over Civil Rights in South Carolina, her decades-long investigation into and collection of the personal stories of black civil rights activists. She has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years in Florida, Greece and South Carolina. Brinson held the Harriet Gray Blackwell Endowed Professorship at Columbia College, where she designed and led the Writing for Print and Digital Media program from 2006-2016.