September 3, 2015

Equalization Schools: A Lesson in Education and Civil Rights

  • By: Sophia Dembling

The banks of windows, flat roof, and brick veneer of the Sullivan Street Elementary School in Greenville County, South Carolina, are typical design attributes of post-WWII school design.

For a historian, it doesn’t get much better than stumbling on a hitherto unexplored corner of history. For a budding historian -- even better yet.

It happened to Rebekah Dobrasko while she was pursuing a master’s degree in public history at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. She even coined a phrase to describe her rediscovery: equalization schools, or schools built in the 1950s for African-American children in a last-ditch effort to stave off integration in the south.

Dobrasko, who grew up in Sulphur, Louisiana, was at Tulane University when she learned through a roommate about the Citizens' Councils—white supremacists in the 1950s who mostly used “economic terrorism” rather than cross burning and violence. They were bankers who refused loans to African-Americans, businessmen who wouldn’t sell them fuel, politicians who kicked sharecroppers off their land.

The Florence Benson Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina.

This was a revelation to Dobrasko. “I grew up in Louisiana and heard of the Ku Klux Klan, but you don’t hear about this kind of white-collar racism,” she says.

Later, at USC, she studied under a professor interested in architecture related to segregation. And the university actually owned a relevant building: Though functioning as offices and daycare, the Florence Benson Elementary School opened in 1953 for African-American students as, “a separate but equal school,” Dobrasko says. “Actually seeing that on the ground, just south of where I went to school, captured my imagination.”

And, delving into the topic, she discovered that very little had been written about this notch on the timeline of civil rights; she found an article from Georgia, one from Mississippi, and virtually nothing about South Carolina.

Alumni of the Levister Elementary School in Aynor, South Carolina, gather for the marker dedication for their school (just right of center).

In the 1950s, throughout the south, lawsuits were piling up in response to Plessy v. Ferguson, the law of “separate but equal” in education. Even more threatening to white supremacists in South Carolina: One lawsuit had been rolled into the collection of suits that was Brown v. Board of Education, which would ultimately make segregation illegal.

Initially, Briggs v. Elliot, the South Carolina suit, focused on African-American schools in South Carolina that were “ridiculously unequal,” says Dobrasko. “And politicians realized ‘Of course they are. We’re going to lose in court.’”

And so, hoping that equalization could stave off integration, the state launched a $75 million campaign to build schools. “It was couched in a lot of political terms about how we need to improve education for all of our students,” says Dobrasko, but it was, in essence, a well-funded program to try and maintain segregation with improved schools for African-Americans. To pay for the schools, the state established its first permanent sales tax.

“To me, that’s astonishing -- a state and its citizens being willing to tax themselves to keep schools segregated,” says Dobrasko.

Allen Elementary School in Brunson, South Carolina.

The state built hundreds of new schools for African-American students, and -- partly of necessity, as small schools were closed and consolidated -- launched its first transportation program for African-American children, who previously had to walk to their sub-par school. “This transformed South Carolina’s landscape,” says Dobrasko.

Schools built in that time are of a style that we all recognize today: Low, one-story brick buildings, flat roofs, lots of windows. “They all had to be designed by a licensed architect, “says Dobrasko. “Architects wanted to design schools that were more child-scale, two story max. They didn’t have these grand staircases that a little first grader looked up to. The use of light was a big thing: You have these windows or glass blocks that help diffuse light into the building. If there was a corridor, they put skylights in. A lot of thought went to play and outdoors. Some had classrooms that opened directly outside to exterior hallways, or opened onto a courtyard.”

African-American families and teachers were thrilled with the new buildings; for some it was the first time they’d had indoor plumbing. “I talked to one teacher from then who said, ‘It was great, I could go into a room and turn a knob and I had heat. I didn’t have to chop wood and build a fire,’” Dobrasko said.

But Dobrasko also found numerous documented cases of snazzy-looking new schools with no desks, with libraries devoid of books, science labs with no equipment. Schools lacked gyms, football fields, extracurricular activities. Textbooks and curricula were outdated.

A hallway at the Florence Benson Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina.

And, of course, these schools weren’t enough to hold back the tide of integration that approached lawsuit by lawsuit. By 1970, all of South Carolina’s holdout districts had complied and the equalization program was fodder for historians.

Although Charleston County had good records about their schools and program, incorrectly stored state records were water damaged and unsalvageable. So to locate and identify schools from this program, Dobrasko relied on newspapers articles, driving around the state, and putting out word about her search. Many of the buildings have been demolished to make way for newer schools. Some have been repurposed.

“Some of them are empty and abandoned and broken down and look horrible on the landscape,” says Dobrasko. Six schools, including the Benson Elementary School building that inspired Dobrasko, are in the National Register of Historic Places. (The other is the Robert Smalls School in Cheraw.)

Although Dobrasko now works for the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin, she still receives information about schools through her website. And she is gratified that the work she started continues. Historical markers have been placed at schools and former sites.

“It’s taken on a lot of its life even since I’ve left and I think that’s really exciting because the whole point of this is telling these untold stories,” says Dobrasko. “I feel really lucky that I could come across something like this.”

Sophia Dembling is the author of 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go.

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.


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