Orangeburg's school district was once a model for desegregation, according to a study done years ago by Columbia University.
That revelation piqued Dr. Susan Till's curiosity.
She learned that information while studying for her doctorate at the University of South Carolina. She found the Columbia University study, which referenced newspaper articles, so Till began to search for articles and scrapbooks. A teacher in District 5 for 25 years, Till learned the district kept scrapbooks of its history that were stored in a warehouse.
Because of age and time, the tape holding together some of the scrapbooks was peeling off. Others were covered with black mildew. Till decided to put them in order and preserve the district's history.
"I removed each copy and put them in file folders," she said. She received advice on how to properly preserve the articles from a historian and curator at the museum at USC and the Historical Society. The articles ranged from 1946 to 1976.
"Some were not dated. I started that way and then gathered them in scrapbooks, acid-free scrapbooks with acid-free newspaper sleeves. The rule of thumb in doing this is to do no harm. Some things I didn't want to alter, I put in an acid-free archival box."
As she thumbed through those worn articles, putting them in chronological order and creating the new scrapbooks, she couldn't help but take in the district's history. She remembered that comment — District 5 was a model for desegregation — and decided to use the discourse, or language, surrounding desegregation in Orangeburg as the topic for her dissertation.
Her scrapbook project had become a major source. Its pages told the story.
"Discourse is everyday language in use," she explained. "The media represents various power holders. Early on, it was white conservative leaders. Early articles were segregated. Not showing black discourse masked inequality of the schools. Black schools never made it to the newspaper, so it appeared easy to support the myth of separate but equal."
Then known as District 26, there were people in the Orangeburg school district who actively supported desegregation. James Sulton, a longtime civil rights activist in Orangeburg, was the one who presented a petition to districts to request that they implement the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The list of names and addresses of people who signed the petition was printed on the front page of the newspaper. People were blacklisted and it was difficult for them to find jobs.
A lawsuit was filed against the district in 1964.
"The district as a model of desegregation — the district did everything right," Till said. "They communicated with the public, preparation was done, meetings with various community members, biracial meetings. There was a federal mandate to prepare for desegregation. As far as the school district, their acceptance of desegregation was far better than that of the community."
In a move Sulton called token desegregation, the district implemented a freedom-of-choice plan where any student could attend a school where his race was not dominant. Not many students transferred and Till said a yearbook from Orangeburg High, the white high school, showed very few black students. Another lawsuit was filed.
"Then desegregation changed to geographic zoning, which essentially brought about desegregation. In 1964, 18 students entered Orangeburg High," Till said. "In the fall, Wade Hampton Academy opened. It was the first white-flight school in South Carolina. While Orangeburg was our model for desegregation, it was also a model for establishing the private, segregation academies."
Till says it is hard to compare District 26 to District 5, as District 5 in now consolidated. But the district remains predominately black. The white population in public schools here continued to dwindle with the opening of Willington Academy. Today, the district is 90 percent black students. Orangeburg Prep — the merged Wade Hampton and Willington academies — is 95 percent white.
"Today, Orangeburg has come full circle, from segregation to desegregation to resegregation," Till said. "I think today, public schools are thought of being for minority children. I think the world is changing. Division, it doesn't help prepare children. I think it comes back to what (Washington Post columnist Eugene) Robinson said during the debate — it would have been nice if somebody talked about race. As a community, we have to care about all of our children. If our schools are failing, what are we doing about it? I don't think they are (failing)."
With the Supreme Court on Thursday rejecting integration plans at two public school districts that used race as an admission tool, districts across the country may have to look at alternatives to have a racially diverse student body, such as income levels. The South is resegregating the fastest.
Dissertation turned in and doctorate degree obtained, Till's experience learning about desegregation and the district's history has caused her to act in her own way. She spearheads monthly meetings with a diverse group from the community to gather and open up a dialogue about racial issues in education — school desegregation and beyond. It is this sharing of thoughts, this language of improving schools' racial balance, this discourse of cultural diversity that she hopes will bring about change.
"Orangeburg may be a model again," she said. "We can reverse the trend."
Charlene Slaughter can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 803-533-5529. Discuss this and other stories online at TheT&D.com.