Equalization schools are part of the long, troubled history of South Carolina’s public schools. These school buildings are physical reminders of one of the only times in the state’s history when South Carolina made substantial statewide investments into the public school system. The equalization school program dragged South Carolina education into the twentieth century. New equalization schools had modern architectural designs and reflected the latest innovations in education after World War II. However, the history of this program and these schools ended up as a footnote to the broader story of the state’s civil rights history. While the equalization program addressed the physical state of South Carolina’s public schools, it did not fix the decades of underfunding, teacher salary inequality, and lack of white support for Black education.
While the school buildings may be seen as symbols of racism and segregation, they are also seen with pride and accomplishment by many of the alumni and teachers that taught in these schools. For most of the students, this was the first time they attended schools with running water and heat. African American students could attend high schools close by as the program built new Black high schools. The schools served as community centers, places to celebrate Black achievements in sports, academics, music, and leadership, and places where networks and relationships were created and continued. Often, when a school closed, it meant the school lost its identity, its trophies and memorabilia, and its mascot and school colors. A closure of an equalization school, despite the reasons the schools were originally funded, was a blow to the Black community. Today, alumni of the Bonds-Wilson High School, an equalization school in North Charleston, are collecting what memorabilia they can find, and putting it on display in a special room at the magnet school that replaced Bonds-Wilson High School.
Records indicate the equalization school program funded over 700 projects between 1951 and 1955, both new construction and rehabilitation of existing schools for Black and white students. Many of these school buildings only served for twenty years before school districts chose to close them or repurpose them after integration. Today, over sixty-five years since the beginning of the school equalization program, many of the wealthier school districts replaced their equalization schools, as in the case of Bonds-Wilson High School in North Charleston. In other cases, equalization schools are reused for other purposes or stand abandoned on the landscape. Other school districts in the state still use their equalization schools as schools. Many need significant upgrades or rehabilitation to meet modern needs for education.
There is not a comprehensive listing of all schools built as part of the equalization program. The records of the State Educational Finance Committee, the state agency responsible for oversight, had to be thrown away due to mold. In addition to understanding Black South Carolinians’ long struggle for quality education, this exhibit also aims to catalog South Carolina’s equalization schools.
The importance of these schools to South Carolina’s history cannot be lost. The state’s African American community led the way in demanding and suing for equality and school integration. Equalization schools are the physical places that resulted from these demands. While the schools resulted in part from state-sanctioned racism and discrimination, they also resulted from the continued pressure Black people put on white institutions to provide them equal educational opportunities. Therefore, they are symbols of Black courage to demand equality. The legacy of the equalization schools can still be felt today. Demands for equal schools, better facilities, and continued improvements echo across the state. Poor, rural, majority-Black schools are still unequal to wealthier white schools. Even if the physical equalization schools no longer exist, their stories and legacies are part of South Carolina’s educational and civil rights history.
Do you know of an equalization school in your community but do not see it on the interactive map? Click here to see if your school is listed. If you do not see your school, click here to send the author a message to add the school to the list.