Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Equalization schools highlighted in Charleston

Having served briefly on the United States Supreme Court, Governor Jimmy Byrnes foresaw in 1951 that a number of low-level federal lawsuits would likely make their way to the nation's highest court within a few years and, given the Court's composition, might result in an order striking down the fifty-year-old "separate but equal" principle in public accommodations.

Byrnes made no secret of his thinking, and he pushed our state legislature toward a Hail Mary strategy: Adopt a massive tax increase to fund the building of hundreds of new schools, to illustrate to the Court that, at least in South Carolina, "separate but equal" was still a viable concept and should be maintained.

He said so in an address to the South Carolina Education Association's annual state conference within a few weeks of his inauguration.

The tax increase passed, the schools were built, but the Court issued its famous ruling in Brown v Board of Education anyway, ordering the integration of public accommodations, including public schools.

Sunday's edition of the Post and Courier of Charleston featured the results of Byrnes's strategy, the so-called equalization schools built in the 1950s, thanks to the work of a graduate student.

Rebekah Dobrasko stumbled upon a piece of relatively unexplored South Carolina history while working on her master’s degree in public history.

She learned the state passed its first general sales tax in 1951 to fund “equalization” schools. This statewide initiative was designed to improve black public schools as a demonstration of its commitment to separate but equal. The state wanted to avoid integrating its racially segregated facilities.

More than 700 new schools were built during the 1950s, but Dobrasko could find little research on these schools or what became of them.

She focused on Charleston County’s equalization schools for her master’s thesis and discovered that some were slated to be demolished.

Dobrasko alerted city officials about the history behind one building slated to be torn down, and her advocacy has led to a first-of-its-kind exhibit being planned for the campus of Charleston Progressive Academy.

School leaders will create the state’s first public display on equalization schools, and the public will have a chance to decide what should be included.

“It’s a chance to tell this story,” Dobrasko said. “It’s a part of our history that’s not the most pleasant, but it’s still something that shaped the education landscape today.”
Building equalization

The state’s equalization schools were built or renovated between 1951 and 1960 as part of the state’s response to the Briggs v. Elliott school desegregation lawsuit. That case originally accused Clarendon County officials of refusing to uphold the law’s requirement that segregated facilities be equal.

Within the first six years of the equalization program, the state nearly doubled the number of accredited black high schools from 80 to 145 in 1957.

South Carolina was one of three states — the other two were Georgia and Mississippi — to give money for school equalization in an attempt to prevent integration. Their efforts would be for naught when the nation’s highest court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that black students must be allowed to sit alongside their white peers.

As part of the equalization school effort, Charleston would receive $6.2 million to renovate, build or equip 46 schools. The majority of the funds went toward black school renovation and construction; black students received new schools first, but the money also funded white-only schools.

Dobrasko became interested in equalization schools during one of her graduate classes at the University of South Carolina. The class took regular trips to Charleston, so she decided to look further at the equalization schools in the county.

She used her Charleston-focused thesis to later create a website on the issue. She heard from residents across the state, and she expanded her work to include schools outside the Lowcountry.

Dobrasko now works for the state Historic Preservation Office, and her job as a supervisor of compliance, tax incentives and surveys has nothing to do with equalization schools.

Still, when she heard about the demolition of Memminger Elementary, an equalization school for white students, she felt compelled to write an email that evolved into a promise of a new public exhibit.
Preserving history

Bill Lewis, the district’s chief operations officer, said the school district can’t restore all the buildings built in that era. Of the equalization schools, the former Courtenay School, now home to Charleston Progressive Academy, has some of the most distinctive architecture, and its close proximity to the Visitor Center and downtown makes it an ideal site for tourists, he said.

Lewis is not sure what the exhibit will look like or include, but he said it likely will be housed in an outdoor courtyard and accessible to the public. It might have maps and plaques as well as photos, but he said that will depend on public input.

The school also might be able to feature some items in its library, but no decisions have been made, he said. The school’s construction budget has about $50,000 set aside for the exhibit.

“If we don’t collect these (artifacts) soon, the memories will be lost,” he said.

Dobrasko said she wants the public — particularly residents who attended or lived in communities near the equalization schools — to share their thoughts on what this exhibit could be. She encouraged residents to bring yearbooks, photos, graduation programs and their stories about whether the schools were important to the area; what the schools were like when they opened; and how they affected the community.

Some of the community’s leading voices on diversity issues — such as the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center and the Charleston NAACP — weren’t aware of the exhibit and said they haven’t been part of the conversation so far. Both groups said they’d like to know more.

Aurora Harris, diversity programs manager for the Preservation Society of Charleston, said she’s been involved in the planning and has helped publicize the upcoming public hearings.

“It’s really telling a part of the story that a lot of people aren’t aware of,” she said.

Bernard Powers, a College of Charleston history professor who’s serving as chief historian on the strategic plan for the International African American Museum, wasn’t aware of the proposed exhibit either but said these schools are an important part of the civil rights movement.

“There is the era of segregation … and the other side is a period of desegregation or integration,” he said. “But in between, there were at least sporadic efforts to forestall desegregation and integration by making separate really equal. And the (equalization) schools are probably the best example of this that you can possibly come up with.”

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