The Persistence of Segregation in South CarolinaHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, South Carolina, desegregation, school integration
Millicent brown could only be honest. It was the summer of 1960, and she was standing in front of the school board in Charleston County, South Carolina. She was preparing to enter the seventh grade. The row of men—all white—studied her as they lobbed loaded questions her way. “Don’t you like your teachers?” one asked. “Don’t you like your friends?” asked another. The issue that ultimately lay beneath these questions was simple: Why did a Black child want to attend a white school?
Sixty years later, Brown can remember how frustrated the interrogation made her. “How dare they try to make me speak ill of my Black community?” she says. But she didn’t bristle. “Oh, I love my teachers, and I love my friends, it’s not that at all,” she remembers saying. “It’s just that I know there are things and facilities that are made available to other schools that we don’t have. I’ve heard that there are lockers … I’ve never seen a locker in my life.”
Millicent had not been prepared for the meeting. Earlier that day, her father had told her mother to get their daughter dressed in something nice, and then he whisked her off to the meeting with little explanation. But Millicent quickly realized that she must have said something right. Matthew J. Perry, the civil-rights lawyer from South Carolina who would become the first Black federal judge from the Deep South, was in town. When Millicent turned from the interrogating board members to Perry, his face gave away that she had performed admirably. He was beaming. Still: “I was always mad at my father for not preparing me,” she told me last year. The meeting established Millicent as the face of school desegregation in Charleston—the person whose name would forever be linked to dismantling the educational caste system in the city.
It should have been her older sister Minerva. In 1959, four years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were inherently unequal, Millicent’s father, Joseph—who went by the name J. Arthur Brown—filed a lawsuit alongside the NAACP and other local families to integrate the port city’s schools. Minerva, a high schooler and an activist in her own right, was named as the lead plaintiff. But segregationists came ready for a fight.
Beginning in 1951, the South Carolina legislature passed a general sales tax that anticipated a Supreme Court ruling on school segregation. The tax was intended for school construction: The state would build new Black elementary and high schools with modern architecture and materials so they could argue that they did not discriminate against Black students. The strategy was known as “school equalization,” and by the time the Court issued its second Brown ruling in 1955—that integration must happen “with all deliberate speed”—each district in South Carolina had, or was building, a separate school for Black students. The state was also trying to slow-walk Minerva’s suit.
When Minerva was about to graduate, with no resolution to the case, Millicent became the lead plaintiff. Suddenly, she found herself in front of the school board, and became more aware of the magnitude of her father’s challenge to the system. She also began to understand just how intractable racism can be.