Taking a Stand in Carolina; a Tale of Two Schools - I

Article excerpt

One of the first things I was told when I came to McClellanville, South Carolina, was that "nobody" used the public schools. For a white person to express interest in St. James-Santee Elementary School and Lincoln High School was regarded as naive or ill mannered if not lunatic or treasonous. When white people said "the school" they usually meant Archibald Rutledge Academy. Several parents proudly told me that the academy had survived in spite of budgets so tight that some of its textbooks had been salvaged from the dumpsters at "the other school." I suppose I was expected to respond sympathetically. Instead, I wondered why their children didn't just walk in the front door and use the books when they were new.

I grew up in Arkansas. My parents graduated in the 1940s from Little Rock's Central High School. In 1957, when I was eighteen months old, we moved away from the city just as President Eisenhower sent in the federal troops to escort nine black students into Central High. Thirteen years later my parents agonized over whether to join a group of their friends who were forming a segregated academy. Ultimately, they remained loyal to the public schools.

I never expected this to be my battle. It seemed to me that we ought to be through with that nonsense. Yet here we were again, as though Brown v. Board of Education had been handed down only last week. Sometimes you choose your battles, and sometimes your battles choose you,

I moved to McClellanville, forty miles up the coast from Charleston, when my husband took a job with the International Center for Public Health Research, an outpost of the University of South Carolina at the Wedge, six miles north of town. In its previous life the Wedge was a "vast-rich" rice plantation; as one eighth grader recently wrote in a classroom essay, "a lot of slavery was around these parts." The rice is gone, but the people are still here. The older generation remembers a time when they "had to cook in a black pot with a fire underneath it."

The town of McClellanville was settled in the 1850s as a summer retreat for planters fleeing the oppressive heat and mosquitoes of the inland swamps. Today, almost all of the town's 400-plus residents are white, while the area defined by the local school district contains about 4,000 people, most of whom are black. By South Carolina standards McClellanville is not a very old town, though many residents cherish its connections to the plantation era. Most houses in the village are modest cottages, and some of the streets in the oldest part of town are narrow dirt roads. White villagers see themselves as living in genteel poverty, the result of Reconstruction and other accidents of history. I frequently hear older people, both white and black, declare that until very recently, "everybody was poor."

The economy of the area depends on seafood--people make a living by harvesting and processing shrimp, crabs and oysters. Fifty years ago, downtown McClellanville included a bank, a cotton gin, several drugstores and other small businesses that catered to the needs of white townspeople and the large, predominantly black rural population. Residents worked and bought provisions close to home. Now black and white professionals commute to jobs in Charleston or Georgetown. Some blacks work inside the McClellanville town limits, picking crabs, heading shrimp, washing clothes or cleaning houses, but many others drive thirty miles or more to work at blue-collar jobs in the paper and steel mills, the U.S. Navy shipyard, the dredging industry or the ports. Others crowd into vans and small buses for the seventy-mile ride up the coast to Myrtle Beach, where they find seasonal employment as cooks and maids. Almost everybody shops at the suburban supermarkets and malls. Around suppertime, people duck into the little grocery store, the cafe and the gas station to pick up what they forgot to buy in the city and to chat about the events of the day. …