The Legacy Of Summerton

THE ROAD FROM DAVIS STATION TO SUMMERTON, S.C., runs straight, flat and unexceptional through seven miles of cotton and corn fields-unexceptional but for one small detail: it is a long way for a child to walk to school. So it happened, nearly 50 years ago, that a group of black parents pooled their resources and bought a used bus to carry their children from Davis Station to the Scott's Branch school in Summerton. It turned out to be a very used bus, a shambles. A local minister named Joseph A. DeLaine convinced the parents that they deserved better. He suggested they petition the county school board for the same treatment-free bus service white children received. "Separate but equal" was, after all, the law of the land. But this was South Carolina in 1947: they were told there would be no money to help "nigger" children.

Reverend DeLaine wanted to sue, but he needed an aggrieved parent to bring the action. He found a farmer named Levi Pearson, who was neither learned nor very eloquent, but did prove to be heroically stubborn. A suit was brought against the Clarendon County Schools. It was dismissed on a technicality, then resubmitted by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP as the first direct challenge to school segregation in the South. Over time, the Clarendon County suit would be bundled with others-including Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas)-and on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court would rule unanimously that segregation of the races was unconstitutional.

Forty years later, Levi Pearson's widow, Viola, still lives just off the road that runs from Davis Station to Summerton, as do several of her children. She doesn't like talking about what happened in 1947. She never expected the troubles that came. The white banker cut off the family's credit, and they couldn't buy fertilizer. The white neighbors wouldn't loan the harvesting machine as they had in the past, and the Pearsons' crops were left to rot in the field. There were, on occasion, shots fired at the house. (But then, Reverend DeLaine probably didn't expect his house would be burned down and he'd be run out of the county-as most of the other black petitioners were.) And now, Viola Pearson does not even want to think about all the history that began on the road that runs past her house. Asked if it was worth it, she has an abrupt, almost reflexive response: "No way," she says. "We went through too much. I'm finished with that now."

The question-to what end?-hangs heavy in America 40 years later, but especially heavy in the town where it all began. Summerton, S.C., seems a Museum of Segregation. It has an all-black high school and an all-white town council. The schools were desegregated, but the whites refused to play; they started their own Christian academy Clarendon Hall. Most places in America aren't so rural, so starkly polarized, so unrelenting-but recent studies show that most school systems remain as profoundly segregated as those in Summerton, and those in the inner cities seem far more desperate. So it is easy, in most places, to respond as James Washington of the Clarendon County NAACP did, when asked what had changed in 40 years: "Nothing."

But then he hesitated, and began to qualify his outrage, because things clearly had changed. for better and worse. So much had happened, so many years of wrangling, a billion man-hours of litigation across the country, court orders, busing plans, riots and demonstrations-but to what end? The endless confrontations had led-in Summerton as in America-to a level of personal racial animosity that simply hadn't existed before in the South, and a new national demagogic politics of race. Many of the children who attend Scott's Branch High School today are convinced that they have suffered and the white establishment has given them less. because of the fingering bitterness over their grandparents' defiance.

And yet, all James Washington had to do was look at the next town over in Manning, the Clarendon County seat, and he could find a totally integrated school system. It almost seemed a mirage, but there it was: on any afternoon, he could see white and black children romping together on the grade-school playgrounds. It was a rare sight in America, 40 years after Brown v. Board of Education. It ",as, ironically, less rare in South Carolina, where schools were more integrated than most other places, according to a 1989 study by the National Association of School Boards: 40 percent of the black children in the state where the battle over integration began were attending predominantly white schools. So something had changed, but why had it happened in Manning and not Summerton? Why in Manning and not America? And, of course: to what end? Were the results worth the trouble?

In a way, the story of Summer-ton and Manning begins with Becki Davis Margarite, whose father had told Thurgood Marshall on the steps of the all-white high school in Summerton back in the '50s, "You'll never get us to integrate. We'll just abandon the schools." Bill Davis was as good as his word. He was president of Summerton's White Citizens' Council, and one of the handful of town leaders who founded Clarendon Hall. Davis told the Saturday Evening Post that "every white man in the section" had joined his council-and, from 1969 to 1972, as Summerton finally moved from voluntary to mandatory desegregation, the number of white students attending public school fell from 281 to 1 (there are about 15 now, 14 in the elementary schools and 1 at Scott's Branch). Becki remembers the move to Clarendon Hall: "It was the Civil War all over again. We were resisting northern aggression. I was proud MY parents were taking such a step, starting a new school rather than submitting. It wasn't until I got to college that I even thought about what the blacks must have felt."

AND THEN SHE WAS OVERWHELMED BY GUILT. SHE would never broach the subject with her father, but she made her mother read "Black Like Me." She vowed that her children would never go to Clarendon Hall. And her daughter. Mason, hasn't-but Becki couldn't quite send her to the all-black schools in Summer-ton, either. "It would be too difficult to be the only white child in an all-black class. So we found a loophole-we bought a piece of property in her name over in Manning, and sent her there."

A strange thing: the man whose support would be crucial to the integration of the Manning schools-state Sen. John Calhoun Land III-was a protege of Becki Davis Margarite's father, the man who kept Summerton segregated. Indeed, Land says he never knew Bill Davis had led the White Citizens' Council. "I must say, I am truly surprised. It must have been before my time, when I was away at school. I only knew Bill Da-,,is as someone who worked easily with blacks. I guess this was something we never talked about."

John Land is a curious figure. "He's difficult to peg," says Gil Thelen, executive editor of The State newspaper. "Fiscal conservative, a defender of traditional power relationships in the state-and a deeply committed progressive on human-rights issues." Senator Land says the last was something of a family tradition. Back in the 1950s, his uncle, who owned the Sinclair oil dealership in the county, quietly defied the boycott against the Summerton blacks; as a teenager, John Land delivered kerosene to blacks like Levi Pearson, who'd been cut off by all the other white merchants in the area. Later, there would be no great discussions in the Land household, or in Manning for that matter-none of the furious meetings and planning that took place in Summerton-as integration became a reality. "We just assumed we'd send our kids to the public schools," says Marie Land, who would become a full-time, all-purpose public-education volunteer and integration activist. "Our oldest son, Cal, was in a private kindergarten the year integration came [1970]. Only three of the 21 kids in his class went to the public schools-and yes, people watched us. When it came time to send our daughter to school, they said, 'You're not going to send her there with...' you know the word."

The Lands were not alone. Nell and Jimmy Black, who owned a car dealership, kept their kids in the public school. So did the Aycocks, who owned a nursing home; and the Haygreens. And, of course, the Weinbergs, Julian-and Sylvia, a teacher who would eventually become Manning's superintendent of schools. "I don't remember any of us talking to each other about what we were going to do," says Marie Land. "Emotions were running so deep that I guess no one felt very comfortable talking about it in public. It's funny-most of the white parents I know who decided to send their kids to the public schools also decided to get real active in the schools. We were in those schools, working, all the time."

They were, at first, a distinct minority. Most whites put their children in church-based Christian academies. Through the '70s, the schools in Manning were more than 80 percent black. And then, slowly, subtly, it began to change-a bond issue passed, a new high school was built; more important, there were no ... incidents the schools seemed safe and cheerful; there was no violence. Several of the Christian academies faltered and closed; by the mid-'80s. the public schools were one-third white. "Parents began calling me tip, asking about the public schools," Marie Land says. 'A perception began to grow that there were more programs, a better education to be had than in the private schools. Within a year or two after the new high school opened [in 1983], John and I looked at each other one night and said, 'It's over. We won'."

It is a measure of the nation's racial agony that successful integration seems a lot more difficult to explain than unbending segregation. if the causes of Manning's unexpected victory remain mysterious-rooted in individual acts of faith, politics and persistence-the reasons for the failure in Summerton are all too plain. The southern third of Clarendon County, Summerton's sector, bad been plantation country. There was always a preponderant black majority, and a white minority that-unlike the smaller upcountry farmers in Manning-never worked in the fields. It was said that white males pursued four occupations: "fighting gamecocks, chasing women, drinking liquor and dying." And while the aristocracy has died or moved on. the black preponderance remains-8 to I among school-age kids, some say. "I don't think we have 50 white kids in the district," says Charles Ridgeway, the mayor of Summerton. "Most of the ones over at Clarendon Hall come from outside the county."

It would have been hard to integrate these schools under the best of circumstances-and the Summerton lawsuit caused an intransigence and bitterness on both sides that made cooperation unthinkable. The white intransigence was more obvious, and odious-black civil-rights activists were driven from the county. Joseph Richburg, now the black barber in Summerton, lost his job with the state VA when it was learned that he was "in acccord" with the NAACP. "All the black teachers had to sign a pledge that they weren't members of the NAACP," he recalls. "My wife and two sisters lost their teaching jobs. We went to Baltimore for 10 years. A lot of people left and never came back-they ran all the good people out of town."

Even now. a quarter century after the schools were "integrated," the effects of the battle linger. Whites have devoted all their energy into keeping Clarendon Hall alive with constant fund raising drives, rather than putting that effort and money into the public life of the town. "The black community is still exhausted and pretty much divided," says Fred Brown, Summerton's police chief and highest-ranking black official. There is also a tendency-in Summer-ton, as in the rest of black America-to hold defensively, and sometimes myopically, to the power that has been gained. In Summerton, that power resides on the school board-elected from a broader, blacker constituency than the all-white town council. "There's a feeling that they act more as an employment agency than a school board," said one disgruntled local official. There is evidence for that: Summerton, remarkably, spends $1,000 more per student than Manning. Some of the disparity is attributable to economies of scale (the Manning district is three times as large) and to the greater "special needs" of Summerton's poor black students, but still: "I don't think the money's being spent the way they should for the betterment of the kids," says James Washington of the Clarendon NAACP. "You need to be dedicated. Some of these folks are just looking for a paycheck. "

SCOTT'S BRANCH HIGH SCHOOL DOES HAVE A THREADBARE, defeated feel to it. It ranks near the bottom of the state in just about every imaginable academic category but it's much less anarchic and dangerous than most urban high schools, and there are grounds for hope: a bond issue has passed, a new high school is being built. Some Scott's Branch students hope the new building will encourage a reconciliation of the races, as the new school in Manning did; most parents are less hopeful. "if they wanted to start anew," says Becki Davis Margarite, "why didn't they change the name of the school?"

Because, to blacks in Clarendon County, it's a point of history and pride. It's also a quietly decorous intimation of the backlash what do we need white kids in our schools for, anyway?-that has become commonplace in black America after so many trials and failures. There are other signs that the outward civility that has marked relations between the races in Clarendon County, and much of the rural South, is becoming frayed: children are coming into the district from northern cities, sent south to live with relatives and escape the violence, but bringing with them northern attitudes-much more overtly anti-white and anti-authority. Even in Manning, there is a sense that the gains of the 1980s are beginning to slip away. "The new kids are having an impact on discipline," says John Bussard, the principal of Manning High School. "Nine out of 10 resent our rules. They don't like our dress code. They're kind of arrogant, street-smart, like they're better than we are."

Integration is a fragile enough business as it is. Whites at Manning High tend to enroll in college-prep courses; blacks, tech prep. Blacks and whites drift off to same-race tables in the cafeteria. When several classes of history and journalism students gathered to meet a visiting reporter, they naturally-almost magnetically, it seemed-divided into black and white tables. But they grew defensive when the self-segregation was pointed out: "Look, we're all friends," said Tiffany Johnson, a white senior. "We've been going to school together since first grade. There's no animosity."

"The world we'll live in isn't going to be black or white," said Tiffany Reed, a black junior. "We're going to have to deal with each other, and having gone to school together, we'll know how" The schools in Manning did seem to be remarkably tension-free. If integration hadn't quite bred colorblindness, there was an ease and familiarity between the races that is rare anywhere in America. There was brightness, an optimism that didn't exist in Summerton. The black students seemed more adventurous, more confident (and more likely to leave home for college). "I think they don't want to be showed up by the white kids, and so hey work harder," says Moses Levy, one of the most dedicated teachers at Scott's Branch.

After 40 years of rancor and sacrifice, of court battles and bloodshed, of increasing segregation and alienation and despair, the results in Manning may seem a puny product. There has been no-great catharsis there, or in any of the other places school integration has put down roots. The victories seem slim, anecdotal, perhaps fleeting ... and yet In Manning, the very ease-the matter-of-factness-of it all was inspirational. The high-school students were perplexed that so much would be made of a circumstance that had become second nature to them: this is no big deal, they seemed to say. Their reality lodged comfortably between Martin Luther King's dream and the White Citizens' Council's nightmare. They sat together in the classrooms and played together on the sports teams: they got along, but didn't quite mix. The most profound fact of their integration was that there was nothing profound to it.

In Davis Station, Levi Pearson's oldest living son, Ferdinand, has pondered the question of the last 40 years, and come to a different conclusion than his stepmother, Viola, who lives down the road. He remembers his father's pride, and devotion to the lawsuit. Levi Pearson would stop each day at midday, and have the newspaper read to him so he could hear the latest news about the case. The white folks tried, but never succeeded in driving him out; he stayed on his land. His original case was thrown out on a technicality: his land was half in Summerton and half in the district that would become Manning. And so it came to pass that Levi Pearson's great-grandchildren-Ferdinand's grandchildren-graduated from the newly built, integrated Manning High School. "Summerton hasn't progressed like he hoped it would," Ferdinand Pearson said. "But when I see the black and white kids riding those Manning buses together, I think of him. He would've been proud."