Claflin professor tracking experiences of those who lived school desegregation
By PHIL SARATA, T&D Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009
Desegregation of public schools began with the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision.
A Claflin University history professor is working to identify and gather the personal experiences of those students who, sometimes unknowingly, were on the front line of social change.
Dr. Millicent E. Brown is the principal investigator of "Somebody Had To Do It," a five-year project of the Jonathan Jasper Wright Institute for the Study of Southern African-American History, Culture and Policy at Claflin University. She says the project took its name from the often-stated response of the young activists who stepped forward, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, to end educational apartheid in the United States.
"The project has multiple levels and a number of goals," Brown said. "It is primarily designed to identify those people who, as children, were the first to go into desegregated schools. Our scope for this is quite broad; it's really national. This is work that will not be concluded in a few months' time. It is an ongoing endeavor."
A native of Charleston who taught at North Carolina A&T University before coming to Claflin last year, Brown herself was the subject of the 1963 case, Millicent Brown et. al. vs. School Board District 20, that forced the desegregation of South Carolina public schools. Brown says she and other children like her were civil rights pioneers.
"What we want to do is put in the historical record these nameless people we define as being segregation pioneers who really sacrificed their youth," she said. "We as children were used for significant social change. They're not yet identified as being pioneers but every community has them. There has not been a concerted effort to document who these people are."
One of four scholars located around the country that initiated the project, Brown says her research already has data collected from other states as close as Mississippi and as far away as Colorado.
"My colleagues and I have honed in on South Carolina and North Carolina as the first states we'll try to permeate," Brown said. "But we are soliciting input and information literally from all over."
Brown compared the "Somebody Had To Do It" project to the first-person accounts of former slaves gathered during the federal Writers' Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.
"If it had not been for capturing the slave narratives, we would not really understand what life under slavery was like," Brown said. "Those have proven to be invaluable for historians to do any number of things with."
A Web site (
) has been created to offer opportunities to help facilitate the project's work through financial, identification, collection and other forms of support. Claflin students are also being used.
"This entire story of public school desegregation, although historically documented, has been truncated and minimalized," Brown said. "Collecting the narratives of those students who lived through desegregation will offer the nuances -- the difference of boys' and girls' experience, the old and the young, rural vs. urban -- required for us to fully understand how we have been affected as a society to this day."
Brown said the project can give a voice to the former students about their feelings surrounding the problems caused by desegregation, such as the removal of role models from formerly all-black schools, "white flight" to the suburbs and the acceptance of socioeconomic status as a significant determining factor in academic performance. The resulting public discourse could help better shape future public education policies.
"I've been teaching history for 15 years only to see students know less every year," Brown said. "The desegregation story shrinks more every year. I think that sharing the personal stories of courage from those who lived desegregation can be relevant to today's students facing other kinds of systemic injustice."
Had To Do It"
a children's retrospective on the process of U.S. school desegregation
The Jonathan Jasper Wright Institute at Claflin University, Orangeburg, South Carolina