For five years, Millicent Brown has helmed the "Somebody Had To Do It" project, a retrospective on educational activism and the experiences of the first black students to attend all-white schools in the 1950s and '60s. As a historian and professor at Orangeburg's Claflin University, Brown is well-versed on the subject. She also has firsthand experience.
Brown lent her name to a case that was as important to Charleston as another Brown decision was important to the entire country. After a judge ruled in favor of Brown in 1963's Millicent Brown et. al. v. School Board District 20, she became one of the first black students to walk the halls at the all-white Rivers High School (now Charleston Charter School for Math and Science), an experience that has shaped her entire life.
Even after the United States Supreme Court reached its landmark decision in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education, local communities around the country had to go through their own court battles — at great financial and emotional expense — in order to force their school districts to abide by the new law. The daughter of a local and state NAACP president, Brown's case actually began with her sister Minerva in 1955. As it dragged on, Minerva completed her public education. Rather than throwing the case out, Millicent replaced Minerva, and the legal battle continued for another three years before the plaintiffs were finally victorious. Almost a decade after Brown vs. Board, District Judge Robert Martin forced Charleston's school district to comply with desegregation.
According to Brown, desegregation was an involved and intricate process, one that was much resisted in Charleston, the state, and throughout the region and the country. "People need to understand the wiles and the ways in which people were trying so hard to resist social change," she says. "Fast forward to 1963 and the games don't stop there." At first, the state government tried pushing extra funding into black schools, hoping that it would stop parents and students from demanding integration. Then school systems made it difficult for black students to gain transfers to white schools, giving students plenty of excuses for why they weren't eligible. When those tactics failed, white families moved from the peninsula to the suburbs, or they just sent their kids to the new private schools that popped up around the city. Pretty soon, formerly white schools were now primarily black.
"You had white flight. White families left the peninsula," Brown says. "They were willing to accept smaller numbers of black students in these suburban schools, but the city school system became more and more dependent on the resources of an increasing black population — in other words, you took the money out of the system."
With formerly white schools relying on the lower incomes of working-class families, their resources were now limited. "If you underfund whole communities, you underfund their schools," Brown adds. "Then you find those problems we associate with fewer resources becoming more and more evident ... Black families were never just dying to get their kids to go to school with white kids. They were trying to go after a more equitable distribution of resources."
When Brown and her fellow plaintiffs entered Rivers High School for the first time, no one could have predicted the results their actions would have on the future of the public education system. White flight, the privatization of eduction, affirmative action — all were negative results of what was supposed to be a positive move. This week, when the College of Charleston's School of Education, Health, and Human Performance hosts a lecture series to commemorate the anniversary of desegregation in the city, it's also going to take the opportunity to look back critically on what desegregation meant, and how far we may or may not have come in the time since.
Today, many public schools remain largely economically (and often racially) segregated. Local public schools that predominantly serve children of color, like Burke and North Charleston high schools, are considered failing under state and national standards, while concerned parents opt for private or charter schools for their kids. So while the series will feature a panel discussion with some of the first black students at white Charleston schools, including Brown, it will also touch on serious issues in public education, from the achievement gap to the new color line.
As Brown points out, we can't fast forward into the future without reconciling the issues of the past.
"I'm not poking my chest out, feeling all proud of the role I've played in Charleston's educational history. Not by a long shot," she says. "In some ways I'm really dismayed. My father, my parents, all the many, many advocates who worked so hard in the Civil Rights Movement, never intended some of these consequences. We never sought to undermine the stability of the segregated schools. It was about resource allocation and equity and fairness and elimination of Jim Crow. Those are principles that we thought very strongly about, but some of these other unintended consequences, we certainly had no idea."
As an academic and a historian, Brown says she's constantly driven to have these conversations about the failings of the American public education system. She's not trying to dredge up sympathy, or even anger, for the role that she played, but she wants Charleston to be honest with the mistakes it made, and to acknowledge what it could have done differently, in order to honestly appraise where we are today.
Ultimately, what happened 50 years ago in Charleston schools wasn't just about black students wanting to go to school with white students. It was about equity of policy and resource allocation. It's an ongoing struggle.
"If you understand that that's what folks wanted, then we can ask ourselves, well, are we any closer now?" Brown says. "We don't have to beat up on ourselves, but we can certainly ask: What would it take? What is the conviction that we need to have?"
The College of Charleston will host its desegregation lecture series on Feb. 20 and 21. For a full presentation schedule, call (843) 953-6354.