Last year I became aware of a person who had worked on a master’s thesis chronicling the expansion of public schools in South Carolina during the advent of the desegregation era of the 1950’s. South Carolina -- like most states -- had maintained segregated school systems until that point. The state spent most of the money for public education on its majority white population and spent only grudgingly on non-whites. In the early 1950’s the state was facing the threat of a federal lawsuit to provide more balanced public education between its white and non-white populations. While the federal legislation was designed to force integration of the races in the state’s school system, state leaders resisted that notion and embarked instead on a strategy of building new schools for the state’s non-white population. The rationale was that if the state demonstrated a commitment to support public education for non-white students then the federal court system would be more lenient toward the state.
Upon learning of this chapter in the state’s history I sought to discover more. To my disappointment as a history teacher, I learned that most of the historical detail of this period, which had been maintained by the State Department of Education, had been destroyed through inadequate record keeping practices. While records of the state’s expanded spending -- for both white and non-white schools -- had been maintained and stored, the records had been lost from flooding of the room in which they were kept. As a result the state had only a partial record of schools built during this critical period in its history.
I became fascinated with the thought of helping to recreate this lost critical chapter of the state’s education history and decided to travel the state photographing schools built during this period and interviewing community members who attended them. What a challenge. I started with a list that Rebekah Dobrasko, a historian from the South Carolina State Archives, gave me that still existed of all schools built during the period that extended from 1951-1959. These schools are referred to in our state’s history as “Equalization Schools.”
The list I was given, broken out by county and community, contained over one hundred schools -- located in every geographic region in the state. As an initial step in visiting these schools I pinpointed each of them on a state road map. I then scheduled weekend drives to as many schools as I could reach in a day. Armed with my camera I set out to locate each of these schools, most of which were no longer in use and some of which had been demolished through neglect. But my goal was to not only find and photograph the schools but it was to find and speak to members of the community who had attended those schools.
What I learned during the visits I made surprised me. One, I was surprised at what a large state we have. Two, I was surprised at how rural and poor our state is. Three, I was surprised in that I never heard the first expression of dissatisfaction from the dozens of people who had once attended these schools who I interviewed during this process. In fact, the people typically indicated that it was these schools that had made them feel a part of the community.
But I was even more surprised at the erosion of our state economy that has occurred during the last century. South Carolina had historically been a state whose economy was based on agriculture. One of the outgrowths of our agricultural base was the growth of the textile industry that converted our state’s cotton crops into fabric in high demand around the world. Even though jobs in the textile industry were relatively low paying, textiles provided stable employment for thousands of relatively low skilled South Carolinians.
As the world economy shattered geographic barriers the majority of South Carolina’s textile jobs migrated to foreign countries -- where the wage rates were even lower than those that existed in South Carolina. Stung by this loss of jobs, communities were also reeling from a decline in rail service upon which many small communities in rural South Carolina had grown dependent to move agricultural products to markets outside the community.
My weekend visits revealed that this double blow was more than many of these communities could endure. As a result many of these communities contain buildings and homes that today are mere relics of the past. The obvious wealth, which one time existed in pockets of our state that are now pockets of poverty, is a nostalgic theme for movies. What an incredible shift.
In photographing schools, I saw the economic devastation that had occurred in these communities. Not good. Perhaps the clearest indication of this devastation, other than the poverty of many members of the community, was the deterioration of so many stately homes that were once occupied by the economic pillars of the community. Some of these palatial homes have been maintained while others were decaying like the communities themselves. A second indication of the wealth that had at one time existed in rural South Carolina were the magnificent gravestones standing today in graveyards, some of which are not being maintained at all.
The small community graveyards around South Carolina contain the graves of many former governors, U. S. Senators, members of Congress, and titans of the state’s past economy. The people in these graveyards were not the people for whom our Equalization Schools were intended. These were the people who by every measure of success already had it. These were the people who could have obviously afforded the very best educational opportunities for their children. Yet these people -- along with the businesses that provided them the economic success they enjoyed -- are nothing more than memories today.
Instead, it’s the people outside these graveyards and the people who lived in shacks behind these mansions for whom the Equalization Schools were built and for whom the state’s expanded spending on public education was made. Yet these are the people who, like those lying under magnificent marble monuments, are disadvantaged by the loss of South Carolina’s economic prowess.
And as I traveled the state witnessing firsthand the consequences of our state’s diminished economy I agonized over how many public officials realize how important it is to do all within their power to turn around the state’s economic slide. Will it be done with newer school buildings? Obviously not, yet that’s an important aspect of our needed recovery effort. Has the state permanently lost its rural economic base? Probably, yet the state continues to hold important economic resources in these areas.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever see a dominant textile industry or profitable farming return to these regions. Yet the uniqueness of these communities could be appealing for other reasons. My travels frequently revealed that residents from crowded, high costs urban areas outside South Carolina are moving in state and acquiring many of the old homes that once proudly stood in our rural communities. I also learned of new businesses attracted to these areas because of very low-cost land, utilities, and rural charm.
Yet any community regardless of its existing wealth, needs to educate its youth to prepare them to successfully compete in their own community economies or to leave those communities for greater opportunities elsewhere. In the last year I met many people in rural South Carolina who were unshakably convinced that the modest schools they had attended prepared them to compete although the opportunities to compete simply weren’t there for them. But it was something about those communities that had kept them there. Poor by normal standards, they seemed to regard themselves as fortunate for the modest lives they have been able to enjoy in those communities.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of perspective. I am able to more deeply understand the good fortune they feel by growing up so close to lifetime friends and extended family members. But I also can’t help but wonder how much more they could have enjoyed if they had been able to participate in economic opportunities enjoyed by so many in South Carolina’s urban centers of today.
That’s a public policy question that I hope today’s public officials in our state are sophisticated enough to ask and answer. If the cracking walls in our state’s schools could talk perhaps we’d know the answer. It’s an answer that has motivated generations of teachers in South Carolina.