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Integration of SC schools through the words of those who lived it

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

The year was 1963. It had been nine years since the Supreme Court had declared in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal in schools was unconstitutional.

But a group of black students making their way into the halls of white schools in Charleston County was a first.

"To be a child in the late 50's early 60s means you were really caught in time," said Dr. Millicent Brown.

A time when South Carolina had just finished spending $124 million and enacting a 3% sales tax to pay for new schools, mainly for black children in hopes of preserving "Separate but equal."

"You need people who are patient but are still willing to push," she said.

Even though school districts were supposed to desegregate after Brown, South Carolina's solution had been to equalize school facilities, especially in rural areas. And the tactic worked for a while but time was running out.

"We had a mission and we knew that what we were doing was right," said Brown.

Brown's family, along with several others, filed suit back in 1955 to desegregate the all-white schools in Charleston County.  South Carolina NAACP Legal Counsel Matthew Perry represented them and eight years later, after numerous legal battles, she would enter the all- white Rivers High School.

"I don't ever want anybody to think that I am trying to say that what we went through was nearly as bad as the horrors that some places had to endure," said Brown. 

But 50 years later, the pain is still visible.

"I had students that called me names that first day," said Brown. "They sang out in the ladies restroom, '2, 4, 6, 8, we don't want to integrate.'"

"They refused to let me use the stall in the girls' restroom. And so they timed it just right, locked all the doors, locked themselves in, and when they knew the bell was going to ring, they came out," she said. "And by the time I went to use the bathroom, I was late for class."

A year later, Emily DeQuincey Newman, the daughter of civil rights activist, I. DeQuincey Newman, prepared for her first day of fourth grade at the all-white Frank C. Withers Elementary School in Columbia. She said saying "No" to her father wasn't an option.

"My father said, 'How can I expose other people's children to this danger, when you won't do it?'" said Newman. "And then he said, 'The only reason people like us exist is to set the example.'"

So she went and met with the principal and her new teacher that July.

"The students there were not for the most part standoffish," she said. "There were those as well but I think a lot of them didn't have those issues, and perhaps because of the fact that the school had invited the white students and their parents to come into the school before it opened and told them what the situation was and what was to be expected."

But not all blacks opted to leave their neighborhood schools during this time. The freedom of choice policy that was enacted during this time allowed them to stay put and school districts kept dual systems going.

"When you've become the star player on the basketball team, when you're now lined up to be the president of the student council, a lot of the people said, 'Not interested,'" said Brown. 

Former State Senator Kay Patterson was a teacher in Columbia during desegregation and said true integration didn't happen until years later. But it did happen.

"When our children starting going to Dreher and Hand and AC Flora and Eau Clare and all those white schools at that time that they made contact with children from another race and they found out from each other the other ones didn't have horns that they weren't the devil," said Patterson.

"And they established relationships with those children. It goes over into adulthood and it makes for a better community when people know each other."

Dr. Brown worked on a project called Somebody Had to it to collect the stories of the children of the movement. Click here for more information.

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