In the early twentieth century, local and national Black organizers helped blaze the College of Charleston’s path to desegregation. In the Lowcountry, Black residents and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) challenged the citywide ban on Black teachers that kept Black educators out of Charleston’s Black schools from the turn of the century onward. Their organizing efforts were successful in abolishing the ban, and, in 1920s, Black educators were once again teaching in Charleston’s Black schools, including the Avery Normal Institute. Established in 1865 to educate Charleston’s Black children, the Avery Normal Institute’s teachers and graduates remained integral to the upcoming battle to desegregate higher education.
Nationally, African American activists only began to see meaningful legal victories in higher education beginning in the 1930s. Under the leadership of Special Counsel Charles Hamilton Houston, the NAACP launched a legal strategy to challenge Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South by demanding that states adhere to the “equal” aspect of the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision. In cases where no Black schools existed, they also fought for those schools to be created. In Supreme Court cases involving state-funded law schools—in Maryland (Pearson v. Murray in 1936) and in Missouri (Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada in 1938)—Houston’s strategy worked. Rather than challenge school segregation directly, the NAACP demanded equalization, knowing it would be financially burdensome for states to establish separate law schools for Black students. When the courts ordered states to maintain Black law schools and white law schools on an equal basis, state governments balked at the high costs. Instead of investing in separate Black law schools, these states chose to force school administrators to accept Black students into white institutions.
In 1950, the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, decided to shift its strategy and successfully launched a direct challenge to segregation in Texas and Oklahoma graduate schools with Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma. In these two cases, Legal Defense Fund lawyers argued that segregated schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The success of these cases was the beginning of the end of the separate but equal doctrine. These early legal victories against Jim Crow also inspired students and organizers across the country to develop strategies to dismantle school segregation, including students at the Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, South Carolina.