Desegregation at the College of Charleston

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Challenging School Segregation in South Carolina

A few years before the College of Charleston became a private institution to avoid desegregation, Harry Briggs and other African American parents in Clarendon County, South Carolina, began organizing to address inequalities in state funding for segregated elementary and secondary public schools. They worked with the NAACP to file a lawsuit in 1948 against the local school board. Reflective of the NAACP’s legal strategy at the time, Briggs v. Elliott was an equalization case, challenging the school district’s practice of offering bussing only to white students, while African American students were forced to walk to school.

At the state level, the District Court upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) with the majority of the three-judge panel ruling that “the school facilities afforded Negroes within the district [should] be equalized promptly with those afforded white persons,” but they also added that “the court should not use its power to abolish segregation in a state where it is required by law.” In his dissent, Judge J. Waties Waring, who only a year earlier had upheld equalization in the Wrighten v. The Board of Trustees case, now wrote a strongly worded court opinion asserting that “segregation is per se inequality.”

After Waring argued that the separate but equal doctrine did not have a solid legal foundation, the NAACP legal team began to implement the next phase of its legal strategy. With cases won across the United States that forced local and state governments to pay to equalize Black and white schools and facilities, it was becoming clear to whites that equalization was expensive. The NAACP’s reasoned that the high cost of equalization would begin to sway public opinion toward desegregation.

The NAACP implemented the shift in its strategy when they appealed Briggs v. Elliott, moving their line of argumentation from demanding equalization of school bussing to focusing directly on attacking public school segregation. NAACP lawyers combined the Briggs v. Elliott (1952) case with four other school segregation cases from around the country, resulting in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). In the famous U.S. Supreme Court ruling, school segregation was finally deemed unconstitutional, and the separate but equal doctrine was overturned.

Headline from The Russell Daily News announcing the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, May 17, 1954, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Headline from The Russell Daily News announcing the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, May 17, 1954, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Supreme Court had provided no clear timeline for implementing desegregation, though, which some states used as an excuse to drag their feet. However, civil rights organizers across the country moved quickly to ensure Brown was being implemented. Civil rights victories in Montgomery, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Oxford, Mississippi, caught the attention of the nation. Local activists in Charleston built on this momentum to successfully chip away at segregation in public facilities on the local level, including in the public schools. In 1963, nearly ten years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, public schools desegregated in South Carolina. Even as the edifice of Jim Crow segregation crumbled around the College of Charleston in the early 1960s, President George Grice and the Board of Trustees remained staunchly opposed to desegregation. Citing the College’s status as a private institution, they denied admission to two more African American students, Gretta A. Middleton and James Milton, in 1962 and 1963 respectively.