By Barney Blakeney
Last week marked the 65th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision making public school racial segregation unlawful. Will someone please tell school officials in Charleston County and the rest of South Carolina!
I started attending public schools in 1959 at East Bay Elementary School and matriculated through Charleston County schools graduating C.A. Brown High School in 1971. I began at a racially segregated school and finished 12 years later at a racially segregated school. Today, 48 years after my high school graduation, were I still in school I’d probably be attending a racially segregated school.
I usually forget the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision. I consider myself a realistic person. I don’t think much about symbolic gestures. Make a gesture that demonstrates an action and I’m more likely to understand and embrace it. Gestures that merely symbolize actions get lost on me. No apologies, that’s just how I am. You can’t sweet talk me. You have to treat me sweetly.
Last year I joined the Shared Future Projects scenario team. I think it offers an opportunity to do something that eliminates racially segregated schools and improve quality education delivery to all students in Charleston County. That’s a huge task, so we’ve gotta get busy. One of the first things Shared Future taught the team was we have to recognize what we have in order to build something better.
Shared Future told us slaves had been prohibited from being academically educated. As the saying goes, “Free your mind and you’re a.. will follow.” Nobody wanted to free slaves. So in 1835 South Carolina implemented a law that made it illegal to teach a person of color to read and write. Violating the law was punishable by imprisonment and/or whipping for Blacks and imprisonment and/or fines for whites.
This law laid the foundation for much of the educational structure in Charleston today. This storied and sordid past has brought us a deeply divided school district that works for most white people in a ‘minimally adequate’ way, while failing to serve most children of color and of poverty, just as it was designed to do 180 years ago, the scenario team agreed.
Folks in Charleston County and South Carolina have played cat and mouse with the education of Black people forever and that’s unlikely to change unless we quit employing charades and symbolism and become impatient about actually providing quality education to all people.
South Carolina First Judicial Circuit S.C. State Board of Education Member Jon Butzon implores that we be impatient about providing quality education to all our people. Every day we wait to do that is another day someone in our community is disenfranchised, Butzon says.
My late brother Ellis Mack used to say, “Everybody’s got an agenda.” I’ve learned that other people’s agenda may not be the same as yours. When I started East Bay Elementary School (now Sanders-Clyde Elementary School) in 1959 it was a beautiful brand new facility. There I was a kid off America Street projects attending one of the newest and most modern schools in the county. However that was not the agenda for those who built the school. East Bay Elementary, Mary Ford Elementary, Gresham Meggett High School and many other Black schools across the state were rebuilt under the Schools Equalization Program South Carolina implemented prior to 1954 to avoid racial desegregation of public schools.
But as the ‘Good Book’ tells us, that which is meant for my harm, God will turn for my good. Charleston County gave us new schools, but old books and fewer resources. The all Black faculty at Mary Ford Elementary where I ended up for five years during my elementary school years were underpaid and overworked with class sizes of about 30 students each year. They performed lunchroom duties, bus duties, recess duties and made lesson plans for much less than what today’s teachers earn – even adjusted for inflation!
My classmate John Wright has a picture on Facebook that I can’t retrieve, but he named some of the teachers and staff who were at Mary Ford. They include: Franklyn James, Marian Brown, Katharine Waddy, Martha Meriwether, Annabelle Deas, Naomi Matthews, Rosa Gordon, Frances Brooks, Robert Watson, Thomasina McPherson, Mary Simmons, Myril Hamilton, Jamie Freeman, Hallique Douglas, Inez Fields, Sena Sparkman, Mildred Cain, Marian Maybank, Helen Joy, Vivian Harris, Helen Atchinson, Naomi Deas, Annette Chambers, Pricilla Johnson, Virginia Harris, Doris Hughes, Gertude Bryant, Hattie Jackson, Sarah Brown, Caramel Brown, Ester Jefferson, James Edwards, Samuel Campbell, Winnie Parker, Tense Sanders, Barbara Wallace, Wheeler Hughes, Clara Ellis, Quincy Finklea, William Singleton, Lucille Jackson, Joseph Cummings, Dorothy Gray, Queen Ester Jones, Beatrice Washington, Isadora Pinckney, Pandora Baker, Robert Fields, Rebecca Small and Esau Glover.
Those people used their money to buy classroom supplies and lunches for kids because there was no free and reduced lunch program. They got their friends, neighbors and church families to donate money and resources for art supplies and cultural activities. Mrs. Sadie Hamilton, our lunchroom lady, was my Cub Scouts Den Mother. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Matthews taught us how to perform theater roles and sing in the chorus. Later at Columbus Street Elementary, Mr. Moses ‘Wildman’ Wilds used a fan belt to teach me to never playfully pull up a girl’s skirt tail. Those folks sent us out into the world to compete with anyone we confronted.
Butzon reminded me that 15 years after the Supreme Court desegregation ruling the United States put a man on the moon. But today, 65 year later, we fail to teach more than half of Black students in third through eighth grade to read on grade level. Symbolic marches on the part of teachers and faux efforts at education reform on the part of legislators don’t produce quality education. That takes talent and commitment from people like those I mentioned earlier. Until that happens, we’ll continue to commemorate anniversaries with no actual movement toward providing quality education for all people. Be impatient, Butzon says.