One man’s journey to find voices from the past puts the present into perspective for students
Even though Roy Jones says he’s “averse” to snakes, his tone implies a stronger dislike than he lets on. However, Jones is willing to face the possibility of poisonous reptiles and other beasts of the field if the reward is worth the effort, and on this overgrown, country road, Jones is close to standing on the site of something historic.
“I took a deep breath, I prayed and I headed down the path,” Jones said, chuckling as he recounts the moment his most recent odyssey in the name of education finally began to bear fruit.
He also had to scale a tree blocking this road—in a suit and tie, no less, as this was an unexpected detour on his visit—in order to reach the derelict Elliott plantation in the town of Summerton, South Carolina. Shattered windows and splintered wooden steps framed the home’s front door, but to Jones the surrounding landscape was just as intriguing.
He saw a trench dug during the Civil War along the road leading to the former Elliott home. The story goes that the plantation owners had their slaves dig the trench and then armed them to defend the home against Union troops that meant to burn it to the ground. The Union soldiers ended up being black infantrymen, and instead of fighting, the slaves and soldiers embraced one another and both man and home were left unscathed.
The averted battle on this road, and most importantly its outcome, hinged entirely on race. Jones was in Summerton to get to the bottom of a similar conflict that would occur almost 100 years later in U.S. courtrooms.
Jones, executive director of Clemson University’s Call Me MISTER program, wanted to tell the story of Summerton and Clarendon County in order to relay to future educators their importance in the fight to end school segregation. Briggs v. Elliott originated in the town, and it was one of the five cases on the docket with the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
The Briggs case began as a civil action lawsuit filed by the NAACP and heard in May 1951. It was the first time that a group of American citizens had petitioned a U.S. federal court to abolish segregation in public schools with the claim that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Proponents of desegregation saw that a ruling in the petitioners’ favor should apply to all public schools.
Although the Briggs case was filed before the Brown case, the Supreme Court made a strategic decision to move the Brown case up in the docket. According to Jones, the move was viewed as a way to shift the focus of the school desegregation fight away from South Carolina to avoid potential bias and a volatile anti-integration atmosphere.
“It was also to avoid the public perception that the case was just a Southern issue,” Jones said. “As the lead case, the Brown victory became the landmark case most remembered and associated with ending segregation in public schools.”
Jones’ winding route to Summerton, its history and its residents was all in service to his students in Call Me MISTER, a program that works to increase the pool of available teachers from more diverse backgrounds, particularly among the lowest-performing elementary schools. The students knew about the Brown case; Jones sought to bring the importance of the overshadowed Briggs case into the spotlight.
Jones’ hard work would bring together a session for students unlike any that had ever been assembled at the annual Call Me MISTER Leadership Institute. He envisioned the descendants of people on both sides of the fight for desegregation appearing on one stage for peaceful reflection, all in service to the MISTERs who would go on to shape the future of South Carolina education.
“We weren’t looking to retry the case, but to get MISTERs to understand the larger context on which the program is based,” Jones said. “As educators, they need to understand the incredible backdrop of history in South Carolina where families risked their lives just to attend school.”
Toppling the first domino
Jones found himself on that country road thanks to Beth Phillips, his guide that day in Summerton. As a longtime resident and one-time mayor of the town, Phillips had invited Jones to Summerton for a conversation that turned into an impromptu tour of the past homes of segregationists and anti-segregationists alike.
Phillips was thrilled to introduce Jones to her town because she was eager to share its story. Jones was just as happy to find her. His many attempts up to that point to find anyone who could speak to the history of Summerton in relation to its public school history had largely fallen flat, but Phillips would prove to be the first, elusive domino in a long line.
“I needed help, so I called the police,” Jones said, laughing. “Beth’s husband is an officer in the Summerton police department, so I thought I could start a conversation with her through him. Before I knew it, she returned my call, welcomed me to visit and put me in touch with several community leaders in Summerton. Most importantly, she directed me to descendants of families connected to the desegregation case—she really made it all happen.”
After his visit to Summerton, Jones reached out to Joseph Elliott, a historian, teacher and writer in his 80’s, who also happened to be the grandson of Roderick W. Elliott, who served as chairman of the Summerton school board named in the Briggs v. Elliott law suit. Elliott agreed to speak at the leadership institute, and he pulled in his close boyhood friend William Carson, a Clemson student during the university’s segregated history as well as an accomplished horticulturist and author. Carson’s father, Joseph Carson, succeeded Roderick W. Elliott as chairman of the Summerton school board also named in the law suit.
Jones thought it might take convincing to bring the relatives of the defendant and its supporters to the table, but after engaging with them personally, he found two men interested and willing to explore the past for all the right reasons. Elliott and Carson recognized that their relatives were on the wrong side of history, and they jumped at the opportunity to discuss how the plaintiffs in the Briggs v. Elliott case had not been properly recognized for their courage in fighting segregation.
But this was only one half of the story, so Jones sought out Bea Brown Rivers, now a retired federal employee in her mid-80s. Rivers was 12 years old when she signed the original petition in the Briggs case, and she is one of the only living signers of the petition. She wanted nothing more than to tell her story in the hopes it would make a difference with young people that might not realize the conditions she lived in as a teen.
Celeste “Clete” Boykin, a Clemson alumna and member of the Clemson Foundation’s board introduced Jones to another informed relative, Marguerite De Laine, a lifelong educator and niece of Joseph De Laine, a Methodist minister, educator and one of the leading civil rights voices in Clarendon County.
Although he was successful in his aim to challenge school segregation in Summerton, Joseph’s church was burned down in retaliation, and he ended up fleeing his home in Lake City the same night he and his family were attacked by gunmen. He would never return to his beloved state. Marguerite agreed to speak about her uncle and her own experiences as an educator.
Jones sought to provide an oral history of Summerton from the people who lived it, and he had finally found his speakers.
“It’s amazing what happened after months of searching,” Jones said. “At first, I couldn’t even scratch the surface, but that’s the way MISTER works. It’s about relationships. When I finally hit the vein, it was the motherlode.”
Hearing firsthand accounts
Jones scheduled the Summerton session on the third day of 2018’s Call Me MISTER Leadership Institute. This was the 15th year of the institute, but amid sessions designed to develop teachers and leaders, this session had been talked up as something special.
De Laine, Rivers, Elliott and Carson each took a turn behind the podium to provide a history of Summerton at a pivotal time in the history of education in the state and nation. De Laine recalled memories from the beginning of her life. Education, she said, had always been a part of it, and so too were the glaring inequalities.
She described the three-room shack in which she had grown up in rural Clarendon County. She described the pot-belly stove that was the only source of heat in the one-room Baptist church in which her mother taught grades one through eight.
She went through a laundry list of what defined black schools at the time. The absence of desks. The “new” books that were 10 years old bearing the stamp “use for colored schools.” The barely-running bus that was finally bought to transport them had been previously used as a chicken coop.
“My uncle was contemplating what was next, and he knew that Thurgood Marshall needed 20 petitioners to sue for desegregation,” De Laine said. “Marshall told my uncle that the discrepancies between white and black schools needed to be so obvious a blind man could see them, and that’s why Summerton was chosen.”
Elliott’s remarks contrasted sharply, as he relayed just how normal it all seemed to him at the time, how people’s unquestioning acceptance of things was a problem in and of itself. He discussed how years of distance provided perspective on how wrong his grandfather was in the side he chose to take as chairman of Summerton’s school board.
He recalled times from his youth that were, in hindsight, filled with clear contradictions and danger right under the surface. He said as a youth, both white and black kids could be blissfully unaware at times, but they always had enough knowledge to not break from the intricate, choreographed dance between races.
“I had black friends. We hunted together, played cow pasture baseball together and ate together in the fields,” Elliott said, “but we couldn’t eat together at a table because that would imply intimacy. We would wrestle for fun but never fight, because if a white child was hurt there could be serious consequences.”
Carson talked about the reasoning behind Brown v. Board of Education being a more palatable case for the Supreme Court over Briggs v. Elliott. He also discussed the day Thurgood Marshall visited his house shortly after desegregation to meet with his father to talk about the integration process.
Bea Rivers’s recounting of all the retribution visited upon her family and the rest of the petition signers arguably hit the crowd hardest. She recounted instances of white children throwing things at her as she walked 10 miles to school. She talked about evictions from farmlands and lines of credit being removed at stores across Clarendon County. Some families were practically run out of the state for fear of their own safety or to find work.
Rivers said that when she lived and worked in Washington D.C. for four decades, she never mentioned her involvement in Briggs v. Elliott. She found it too painful to talk about because it happened during such a formative period in her life. When she moved back to Summerton with her mother in 1995, she was forced to face those long dormant emotions and come to terms with them.
“I asked myself why these people stood up; they were all uneducated or undereducated, just like their parents, so why them?” Rivers asked the crowd. “If they didn’t do something, who would? They stood up for all children in America, and they paid a high price for privileges we now take for granted.”
Jones closed the session by drawing attention to how certain MISTERs in the audience were connected to Summerton. He pulled seemingly disparate threads together into a tight, coherent pattern of meaning, a tactic Jones often uses while addressing a room full of eager listeners. It’s a surefire way to get educators talking about where they came from and how they’re going to weave that history into a lesson plan.
When the MISTERs emerged from the session, they carried with them a curious look of inspired weariness. So much had struck a chord with them, but it was clear that many were finally realizing the full weight of the responsibility ahead of them in their careers.
Darien Rencher, a junior in Clemson University’s Call Me MISTER program, said the session forced him to realize how much more opportunity he has than those that came just a generation before him. Rencher said he will prioritize teaching through context in his own classroom in an effort to encourage students to think critically about what’s going on in the world around them and where they’ve come from historically.
“Going forward it’s clear we have a responsibility to do what they did in our own way,” Rencher said. “We should expect to have to sacrifice in order to lead; it’s not about how great we can be but how great we can make others and those that will follow us.”
The powerful, humbling quality of the session didn’t only affect students; leaders in the MISTER program were at times visibly shaken and emotional hearing from the speakers. Their time as educators had given them perspective, but the power of a first-hand account dwarfed much of what they had previously learned in an academic setting about South Carolina’s history.
Mark Joseph, program coordinator for Call Me MISTER and assistant professor of education at Anderson University, said that by the time the session was over, he felt overwhelmed by all he had heard. Call Me MISTER emphasizes the power of a person’s story, and he said the session was a clear example of multiple stories promoting the program’s values.
“This kind of lesson straight from the source will help us as a program understand how we started, how far we’ve come and where we need to go next,” Joseph said. “This experience makes us more committed to do what needs to be done to get there.”
Jones is proud of his work and what the MISTER program has accomplished. Since 2004, 100 percent of MISTER graduates are offered teaching jobs. Of the 227 graduates since 2004, 95 percent are still teaching in South Carolina classrooms. It’s a measurable impact in schools across the state.
However, this session was about making sure those educators view what they’re doing and the world around them with clarity. It achieved what Jones hoped it would. At the very least, it closed a gap in education for the many MISTERs who were present for it.
“South Carolina has a mandate to teach African American history, and it’s amazing to me when students know so little of it, especially when so much of it happened in or near their native towns,” Jones said. “If they didn’t learn that in their K-12 experience, then they certainly got it from first-hand sources today.”
Jones was happy to let the speakers run the show and drive his points home for him. Anyone in attendance could see how excited he was to disappear from the podium. Jones was eager to fade into the crowd and become another listener, just as he was happy to sit in a Summerton cafe hearing from individuals he’d never met on his long road to make this session happen.
In those situations, Jones says building the relationship is as easy as listening intently to the person across from him. He’s learned that knowing when not to talk can make all the difference in building a relationship.
Listening is often how Jones makes in-roads. It can also be how he finds himself scaling trees in a sharp looking navy suit or praying for a snake-free walk along a country road. But sometimes, listening can be the first of many steps in providing context to a room full of future educators who need it now more than ever.