Sometimes their children walked.
Sometimes their children rowed.
Sometimes their children died.
In 1948, when only 16 states in America had outlawed segregated public schools, Black parents in the tiny hamlet of Summerton, South Carolina, where three out of every four residents were Black, finally got tired of being robbed by white people. Their children were mostly just tired.
Every day, young Summertonians maneuvered through one obstacle course after another, only to be rewarded with an inferior education. If the children were lucky, they walked as far as nine miles to attend one of the segregated schools in Clarendon County’s District 22. On other days, rain would force students as young as 6 years old to wade across a stream to attend school. Often, when the water was particularly high, someone would provide a raft to row their way across the Lake Marion Reservoir. When they arrived at school, they would have to chop wood for their unheated classrooms … if they arrived.
Sometimes a student would just drown on the way.
This may sound like a rough life for impoverished rural students, but Summerton was not a poor town. The vast majority of Summerton’s Black citizens were employed. Many owned businesses or worked at comparatively well-paying jobs in local factories. Their employers withheld federal, state, and local taxes from their paychecks just like their white counterparts. Summerton’s Black residents were not exempt from paying property taxes, sales taxes, or any other assessment their government deemed necessary. Naturally, Black parents were outraged when they discovered the white children didn’t have to make the same daily trek as their children because the district had purchased 33 buses to chauffeur them to school. Incensed, a group of parents begged Clarendon County School Superintendent R.W. Elliot for just one bus, to serve the county’s Black students.
He said no.
So, Harry and Eliza Briggs along with 20 other Black families, contacted the NAACP and eventually filed Briggs v. Elliott, the first of five cases that would eventually be combined and become known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. But even before their case dismantled the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” precedent, the parents of District 22 fully understood why their children lived this precariously treacherous existence:
White people in the district were stealing their money.
All of them.
Summerton is a but a microcosm of the greater United States.