Ambiguous Legacy: Summerton, South Carolina, and Briggs v. Elliott

Ambiguous Legacy: Summerton, South Carolina, and Briggs v. Elliott

The fiftieth anniversary celebration of Brown v. Board of Education leads uncomfortably to a South Carolina country town named Summerton. With a population of barely one thousand, Summerton seems too culturally unimpressive a place to have ever participated in a great historical moment. It not only lacks a college, it lacks a public library. The wide trailer homes, the tin roof houses, and the empty tracts of land indicate a lack of new construction. Just as a nodding head, sagging shoulders, and lifeless eyes are reliable signs of depression, so the faded façades and closed storefronts along Summerton’s main street signal economic gloom. A small town slumps along with a case of the blues.

The police station is a Korean War Quonset hut, staple of the 1950s, a provisional edifice originally used as a war bunker. Some decades ago the township stuck some windows in. Summerton has been described as “a land lost in time.” It seems a cliché to say that in the wake of Brown little has changed, but given its connection to the end of de jure segregation, Summerton could serve as a poster child for the emotionally charged feelings that go with the cliché.

Few would argue with the assertion that Summerton-and the surrounding rural communities of Clarendon County-remain by and large segregated. Summerton has two traffic lights and a Piggly Wiggly convenience store. Then you’re on the road out of town. On some off-shooting roads, there are pleasant estates, antebellum status symbols. Behind the Piggly Wiggly, the lines are clear. Suddenly the roads are beat up, the potholes deep; houses sink feebly into the muck underneath.

There are no literal railroad tracks. If there were, the insultingly abrupt transition would suggest “the other side of the tracks.” This is where the “Negroes” lived in books like Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit. As a white Southerner, this is where you would have driven in the 1950s to pick up the family maid. As a black man or woman you would have lived here-not by choice, rather, by law and legally enforced tradition. In a town this small, the social lines stand in stark relief. It is in fact difficult to write about Summerton as it exists today without feeling that one is exploiting stereotypes. Two thousand four cannot be 1954. I’m embarrassed to imply that it is. But the social vision rises before one’s eyes.

As the past mirrors the present, so too the Clarendon County school system then and now. Blacks attend the public schools; most whites attend private academies. Clarendon County school districts 1, 2, and 3 are involved in a lawsuit alongside thirty-three other South Carolina school districts, Abbeville v. State of South Carolina, suing the state for failing to meet the barest educational needs of its citizens. Testimony regarding education within the thirty-six rural school districts has described woefully inadequat...