Somebody Had To Do It: First Children in School Desegregation

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Origins of Somebody Had To Do It

Millicent Ellison Brown,&nbsp;<em>Tide</em>, Rivers High School Yearbook, 1966, Millicent E. Brown Collection, courtesy of the&nbsp;Avery Research Center.

Millicent Ellison Brown, Tide, Rivers High School Yearbook, 1966, Millicent E. Brown Collection, courtesy of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. In 1963, Brown was one of the first Black students to integrate the all-White Rivers High School in Charleston, South Carolina.

Millicent E. Brown, PhD

By the time my parents took me to see Dr. Charles Banov, an Internal Medicine specialist, I was a senior at Rivers High School in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. It was 1966, three years after I became one of the first of eleven African American students to desegregate formerly all-White public schools in the state of South Carolina. It would take numerous examinations by Dr. Banov to identify the causes for my breathing difficulties. My family feared I had a “bad heart,” but Dr. Banov’s younger sister Caron, a Jewish student at Rivers High who had befriended me, discussed the issue with her brother and shed some light on the causes of my condition. We concluded that since I left the all-Black Burke High School and began attending Rivers in 1963, the stresses of ostracism, marginalization, unhappiness, and isolation at school had resulted in the tightening of nerves in my chest. After being hospitalized for several days, it became clear that the anxiety was severely affecting me.

Many years later, when I was teaching college students about the civil rights movement as a U.S. History professor, I further recognized how the deeply personal struggles of “first children” like myself had been overlooked. From school desegregation, to lunch counter sit-ins, to protest marches, children and teenagers were often at the front lines of social change during the twentieth century civil rights movement. In cities, towns, and communities throughout the nation, thousands of young African American students faced the daunting challenge of becoming the first to integrate all-White schools. Many first children, along with their family and friends, later confessed that their immediate concern was safety. What physically and emotionally abusive treatment would they experience at the hands of school officials, teachers, students, politicians, and members of both White and Black communities who resisted this historic breakthrough? Beyond the landmark Brown v. Board federal case in Topeka, Kansas, and the infamous conflicts surrounding the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas in 1957, few of these first children received individual recognition in the media or later historical accounts for their groundbreaking roles. Our story remains to be told.

Popular depictions of the twentieth century civil rights movement have traditionally concentrated on prominent male leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (El Hadjj Malik el Shabazz). Fortunately, by the turn of the twenty-first century, scholars began documenting the crucial contributions of women in the movement, such as Ella Baker and Septima Poinsette Clark. Still, chroniclers of civil rights history overwhelmingly emphasize marches, protests, and violence at the hands of White law enforcement officials, especially in the Deep South. While these events are crucial to understanding this time period, the vast efforts of local communities, and the risks and sacrifices that countless individuals endured to make the movement possible remain underrepresented. Brown v. Board rightfully stands as a historical marker for the nation’s transition away from legal segregation. But the various ways individuals and local communities resisted or accepted desegregation, particularly of public schools, is a more complex story. After 1954, legal challenges to desegregation shifted to public accommodations, housing, electoral politics, and many other vestiges of racial discrimination, but the struggle to effectively implement school desegregation and equal education continued for well over a decade, and in many contexts continues into the present.