Introduction

First Children of Integration in Charleston School District #20, 1963, Charleston, South Carolina, Isaiah DeQuincey Newman Papers, courtesy of the South Carolina Political Collections, University of South Carolina.

First Children of Integration in Charleston School District #20, 1963, Charleston, South Carolina, Isaiah DeQuincey Newman Papers, courtesy of the South Carolina Political Collections, University of South Carolina. Students pictured from left to right, standing: Clarence Alexander, Barbara Ford, Jacqueline Ford, Ralph Stoney Dawson, Millicent Brown, and Clarice Hines. Seated, left to right: Cassandra Alexander, Gerald Alexander, Gail Ford, and Oveta Glover. Not pictured: Valerie Wright. In 1963, Judge Robert Martin ruled in favor of integration in the case Millicent Brown et al v. Charleston County School Board, District 20. The above African American students were the first to be admitted to formally all-White schools, including Charleston and Rivers High Schools as well as James Simons and Memminger Elementary Schools. 

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that de jure, or legal, racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional on the federal level through Brown v. Board of Education. Despite this ruling, it took years for public schools on the state and local level to effectively begin to integrate. In South Carolina, school desegregation did not begin until 1963, when Judge Robert Martin ruled in Millicent Brown et al v. Charleston County School Board, District 20 to approve requests from Black students to be admitted to White schools. His ruling came within two weeks of the new school term, so that only the chief plaintiffs—eleven African American elementary, middle, and high school students from Charleston—were immediately admitted to White schools. School desegregation did not fully launch throughout the state until the following year. 

Across the United States, thousands of young African American students faced a similar challenge of becoming the “first children” to integrate public schools after Brown v. Board. In the majority of cases, their names were not systematically documented and their stories remain untold. Somebody Had To Do It launched in 2006 as a collaborative, multi-institutional project to identify and collect oral histories from individuals who were the first Black students to integrate all-White schools during the twentieth century civil rights movement. Dr. Millicent Brown, the director of Somebody Had To Do It, holds a personal connection to this history—in 1963 she was one of the first children to desegregate South Carolina schools, and the only named plaintiff in South Carolina’s groundbreaking school desegregation case in Charleston County. Today, Brown is a retired university professor of U.S. History, and her ongoing research focuses on promoting greater awareness of the experiences of first children during school desegregation.

This online exhibition features select excerpts of oral history interviews conducted by the Somebody Had To Do It team with first children in South Carolina and beyond. The College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center Archives holds a collection of over forty interviews conducted by this team starting in 2006. Over time, additional interviews from this collection will be transcribed and uploaded into the Lowcountry Digital Library, and highlighted in this online exhibition through video clips and the interactive map. In the following sections, Brown details her personal challenges as one of the first children to desegregate Charleston County Schools, and describes the early development of the Somebody Had To Do It Project. The exhibition’s historic overview and interactive timeline detail the long history of African Americans advocating for quality education in South Carolina and throughout the nation, from Reconstruction to the twentieth century civil rights movement.