In 1954, the United States Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education effectively overturned Plessy v. Ferguson by declaring that state laws for racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Though this court case originated in Topeka, Kansas, South Carolina played a critical role in the decision. Briggs v. Elliot (1952), originated in Clarendon County, South Carolina, and was one of the five lawsuits combined under the Brown case when it was argued before the Supreme Court. The Briggs case began in 1948 when local parents, including Henry and Eliza Briggs, filed suit for adequate transportation to the local segregated school that their children attended. In 1950, with the support of the NAACP and activists Reverend Joseph A. DeLaine and Modjeska Monteith Simkins, the plaintiffs re-filed their case to ask for equal educational opportunities as well as transportation in Clarendon County. Thurgood Marshall argued the case in Charleston, and Judge Waties Waring delivered a dissenting opinion, ruling that, “segregation is per se inequality.” The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, and became part of the Brown case.
In the years following the crucial Brown verdict, the South Carolina state government continued to avoid desegregation. These delay tactics reflected a pattern found throughout the U.S. South. State governments in Mississippi and Virginia avoided desegregation through an abandonment of public education. White voters in Mississippi even ratified a state constitution to provide constitutional authority to abolish the state’s public education system. Mississippi legislators also passed a series of laws that provided scholarships to White students who sought admission to private schools, so they would not have to attend public schools that were going to be desegregated. Such legislative moves were replicated across the South.
In South Carolina, rather than prepare for the eventual order to desegregate, the state government embarked on a massive school equalization scheme. They sought to finally uphold the “separate but equal” provision in Plessy v. Ferguson by building or renovating facilities for Black schools. In 1951, Governor James F. Byrnes also encouraged the South Carolina General Assembly to consolidate school districts, which would serve to eliminate the dual Black and White systems but maintain separate schools. In Charleston County, for example, the twenty-one school districts consolidated to eight. In addition, the governor successfully advocated for legislation to establish a three-cent sales tax to help fund efforts to equalize Black and White schools. This became the first sales tax in the Palmetto State. He subsequently established the Education Finance Commission to distribute the funds.
As a result of the Byrnes Plan, between 1951 and 1956, $124,329,394 went to public education in South Carolina. Blacks comprised forty percent of South Carolina’s school pupils, but almost two-thirds of that money went to Black schools. By the end of 1955, the Educational Finance Commission and many educators erroneously believed that Black schools were substantially equal to White schools. In peninsular Charleston, the school district provided six new equalization schools for African Americans and developed plans to expand existing ones. Burke High School, which up to that time had served the entire eighth through twelfth grade African American student population of the Charleston School District 20, received half a million dollars to improve its facilities and build five more buildings. Soon after construction began on Burke, plans emerged for a new school for Blacks at the foot of the Cooper River Bridge, near the newly expanded America Street Housing Project. The $625,000 East Bay Street Negro Elementary School, now Sanders-Clyde Elementary, opened in February of 1955. A News and Courier article announced that the new school was a success of the equalization scheme, saying it was “nearly identical to Memminger Elementary School,” a school serving peninsular Charleston’s White population. Two years later, school officials opened the Columbus Street School for African American students. Additionally, the city transferred Courtenay Elementary from White hands to Black control in 1958.
By 1956, the Charleston County School District had spent all of the money it would receive from the Education Finance Commission until 1960. Charleston superintendent Robert Gaines suggested that a bond election be held to raise the $1.1 million required to further equalize the city’s schools. Gaines realized, however, that the only way a bond election would be voted in by the populace was if it supported both Black and White schools. For this reason, the bond that he proposed allocated $300,000 for improvements to both Black and White institutions, including all-White Rivers High School and James Simons Elementary, as well as $800,000 for improvements to Burke, Archer Elementary, and Simonton Elementary. He believed that “If we show evidence of moving ahead rapidly on these projects, the Negro population will be satisfied. If we do not, we will quite possibly be faced with an integration suit.” Much to Gaines’ surprise, Black Charlestonians, led by the efforts of the local NAACP, protested and defeated the bond election. J. Arthur Brown, the president of the local NAACP, led the opposition, believing it was “high time” that the school board begin to comply with the Brown decision rather than continuing to prolong the inevitability of desegregation through equalization projects.
On the state level, Governor Byrne organized a special committee to study alternatives to the federal court-ordered desegregation. This fifteen-member committee, which took the name of its chairman, Senator Marion Gressette, worked to create more legally defensible justifications for segregation. The committee first recommended that the legislature amend the South Carolina constitution, removing the requirement that the state maintain public schools. The measure appeared on the ballot of the November 1952 general election and passed unanimously. In 1955, the state legislature passed a pupil-placement law, similar to those used in nine other southern states. South Carolina’s pupil-placement law “gave local school boards the discretion and power to assign pupils in the best interest of education.” Individual school boards could now determine which school was “best suited” for a student, which ultimately allowed them to maintain segregated schools.
Charleston schools also used standardized testing to justify giving Black students a lesser education. This testing was based on racially biased social scientific evidence that created an academic tracking system to systematically place students in vocational or college preparatory tracks. In 1957, a three-tier tracking system was incorporated into the curriculum of high schools in Charleston County School District 20. At the all-Black Burke High School and the all-White Rivers High School of Charleston, students’ test scores determined whether they were assigned to the honors track, the general track, or the remedial track. The majority of Black students were placed in the general track, while Whites were overwhelmingly placed in the honors track.
State legislators in Columbia and local educational authorities also began adopting movements toward school privatization. For example, the College of Charleston, under the leadership of President George Grice, began discussions about becoming a private institution to avoid desegregation. On April 19, 1949 the Charleston County legislature passed a bill returning the College of Charleston to private control, placing the college under the direction of the Board of Trustees. Rather than create a local college for African American students, the city of Charleston offered to provide scholarships for Black Charlestonians to attend college at South Carolina State in Orangeburg. In addition, seven White Citizen’s Council groups in the area conducted an architectural survey of Charleston’s buildings to determine which could be considered as potential private schools.
Based on the recommendation of Gressette’s Segregation Committee, the state passed a tuition grant bill in May 1963 that allocated funds to parents who chose not to enroll their children in public schools. The bill gave $155 per pupil per year for children to attend private schools. In order to maintain separation between church and state, however, the bill contained a stipulation that the funds could not be applied towards students who attended religiously affiliated schools. In the coming year, as desegregation became inevitable in the state, many Whites took advantage of this bill.