Somebody Had To Do It: First Children in School Desegregation

Exhibit Splash Image

Desegregation in Charleston

City Federation of Colored Women's Club, March 10, 1959,  Gracie B. Dobbins Collection, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

City Federation of Colored Women's Club, March 10, 1959, Gracie B. Dobbins Collection, courtesy of the Avery Research Center. This club was active in demanding equal opportunities for African American children in Charleston through the 1950s. Front Row: Martha Jenkins, Nan Baxter, Erline Frazier Wong, Inez Frazier Pinckney, Selma Deveaux Caldwell, and Ophelia Johnson Haynes. Back Row: Emma Frazier, Margaret Johnson, Fredrica Finch Hollings, Alethia Powell, Picola Byrd, Thaddena Fraser Boone, Alma Wigball, Julia Fennick Lucas, and Vivian Fraser.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attending community planning meeting at the Emanuel AME Church, May 18, 1962, Charleston, South Carolina, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

Community planning meeting at the Emanuel AME Church, May 18, 1962, Charleston, South Carolina, courtesy of the Avery Research Center. In 1962, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and local civil rights leaders, including Rev. B. J. Glover and Esau Jenkins as well as Myles Horton, Director of Highlander Folk School, met to plan a series of demonstrations against segregation in the area.

Despite significant intimidation and delay tactics, Charleston activists continued to demand equal opportunities in local schools in the 1950s. Members of the Council of City Parent Teacher Associations, the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, and the Charleston Branch of the NAACP led the drive. Many still focused on lobbying the Charleston County School Board to equalize the funding going into African American schools and to address overcrowding, but others built upon the momentum of the Briggs case to petition the Board to integrate public schools. In 1959, four years after the Brown decision, J. Arthur Brown, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, filed a lawsuit for his teenage daughter Minerva to attend Rivers High School, an all-White high school in Charleston.

Young students like Minerva and her younger sister Millicent were ultimately at the forefront of the desegregation movement. In the fall of 1960, while the Minerva Brown case was pending in the courts, Minerva and a group of African American students applied to the all-White school board to transfer to White schools. Minerva Brown, then a twelfth grader, and Ralph S. Dawson, a ninth grader, were denied admission to Rivers High School in Charleston. Oveta Glover, a first grade student and daughter of Reverend B.J. Glover (NAACP leader), was denied admission to Julian Mitchell Elementary School. In a News and Courier article, Reverend Glover stated that his daughter’s request for transfer had been approved, but the name for the school that she was admitted to was omitted from the certificate. On October 15th, fifteen African American students applied for transfer to White schools, instigating a two-year application process. The school board maintained that it could place students in a segregated school that suited them using “intelligence and cultural tests” to gauge aptitude. Additionally, the school board asserted that it did not believe placing a Black student into a White school was “in the best interest of the child to be transferred.”

S.H. Kress Historical Marker, image by Harry Egner Jr., Charleston, South Carolina, April 2015.

S.H. Kress Historical Marker, image by Harry Egner Jr., Charleston, South Carolina, April 2015. This marker stands outside of the building that once housed the S.H. Kress restaurant, which was the site for lunch counter student sit-in protests in the 1960s.

While the NAACP fought for desegregation in the court system, students engaged in other civil rights protests in Charleston. On April 1, 1960, twenty-four African American students from Burke High School organized a sit-in at the segregated S.H. Kress lunch counter in downtown Charleston. This student-led protest demonstrated that a strong representation of young people and local African Americans were dedicated to contesting segregation on all fronts. This grassroots, local movement put pressure on the local and state governments to not only desegregate, but also to respond to the larger civil rights movement unfolding across the nation in the mid-twentieth century.

On August 23, 1963, Judge Martin handed down the decision that Charleston County schools must desegregate. By that time, Minerva had graduated from high school, and her sister Millicent replaced her as the first name listed in Millicent Brown et al v. Charleston County School Board, District 20. Martin ruled that the eleven remaining plaintiffs’ requests for admission to White schools must be approved. The decision took place close to the beginning of the school year, so Judge Martin permitted the school board to limit desegregation to the eleven plaintiffs, further delaying full desegregation.