A young, optimistic and studious Dianne Zeigler sat down with her family at the dinner table one evening in the early 1960s while she was a student at the all-black Elloree Training School to plan where she would attend school at the beginning of her sophomore year.
Around that table, a discussion ensued that would change the trajectory of Zeigler’s life, resulting in self-discovery and sacrifice.
In August 1965, Zeigler was one of seven black students who began the partial integration of the Elloree Public School System, thrusting the group of five girls and two boys into the spotlight as they began the five-year journey for 35 African-American students who would integrate the Elloree School System between 1965-1970.
On Saturday, Aug. 8, the “Elloree 7,” gathered with family, friends and community leaders at The Rotunda in Santee to mark the 50th anniversary of the Elloree School Integration.
One of the Elloree 7, Dianne Zeigler-Brown, who is today a wife and grandmother, said it’s easy to focus on the “derogatory adjectives” and actions that were hurled against her and her six schoolmates as they entered, exited and sat daily in classrooms trying to do nothing other than “learn, because the white students were no different than us.”
The South Carolina State College, University of South Carolina and Townsend State University alumna said that during the three years she spent at Elloree High School, she daily affirmed her worth by repeating to herself, “I’m brilliant, amicable, loving and tolerant … Those were some adjectives that I would use to describe myself,” she said tearfully, gently placing her hand on her chest.
After graduating from South Carolina State College, Zeigler-Brown believes that she was refused a job at the elementary school in Elloree because she was a member of the Elloree 7. She subsequently accepted her first kindergarten teaching position at St. John in Cameron.
A retired early childhood and technology educator for 30 years, she noted that she would not let another person’s opinion and malicious intentions define who she was and who she knew she was created to be.
Rodney Anderson, master of ceremonies and organizer of the evening’s dinner celebration, said the occasion served as a time to “recall, reflect and remember" -- a time to recognize the parents, guardians and students who sought to promote education as a pathway to life.
“We also acknowledge the Lord’s grace in all of their lives and of those that follow,” he added.
Anderson is the son of Hattie Fulton Anderson, a former educator who was a member of what has become known as the “Elloree 21," those who in 1956 lost their teaching jobs because they refused to sign a sworn statement that they nor their family members were members of the NAACP.
Additionally, they were asked to affirm that they were not qualified to teach white children.
The teachers garnered national media attention, suffering serious financial and career challenges for themselves and their families for years to come.
On May 17, 2015, the South Carolina Legislature acknowledged the heroic actions of the Elloree 21 with a concurrent resolution, which was championed by Sen. John Matthews.
Beverly Parler-Rice fought the teaching bug, but that was very hard to do since her mother, Dorothy Parler, a teacher at Elloree Training School, was pregnant with her during the time the Elloree 21 lost their jobs.
“My mother would have likely lost her job as well, but during those days, a woman could not teach while she was pregnant,” Parler-Rice said. “Knowing my mother, she would have joined them and stood up for her rights.”
Race relations had evolved somewhat by the time Parler-Rice entered the ninth grade at the high school, she recalled.
“At the time, I had no idea that I would be considered a pioneer,” she said. “I knew that the white students at the school were no better than us; we were just as smart and equally prepared.”
Parler-Rice, a graduate of South Carolina State University, was a music educator before leaving to work with Sears Roebuck and Company for a number of years. She later returned to her first love, education. She taught at two schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, before returning to teach music at Elloree Elementary, where she continues to work today.
The parents of the students who integrated the Elloree schools received a letter at the start of the 1965 academic year that read in part: “We understand that you have decided to send your children to the White School next year. Please change your mind. Who will suffer???? Your child will be the one -- You will suffer some but the child will catch the blunt of it … ”
Zeigler-Brown and Parler-Rice don’t consider themselves heroes, but they say it was a part of their duty to their generation and future generations to make a sacrifice that would help change the narrative of educational opportunities for blacks in the South.
The Elloree 7 were: Jerona Elaine Anderson Williams, a mathematics teacher for 40 years; Ola Glover Randolph, a veterans' day-care provider; Dianne Zeigler-Brown, a technology educator for 30 years; Patricia Williams VanBuren, a federal government employee for 34 years in Washington, D.C.; Esser M. Shivers Sitton, an English teacher for 40 years and pastor; Dr. Alvin Bernard Williams, a retired dentist with the U.S. Army; and Ret. Army Maj. Gen. Rodney O. Anderson, PhD.
The Elloree 7 are all still living; six members of the Elloree 35 are deceased.