Williamsburgh Historical Society hosts speaker in conjunction with exhibit
The Williamsburgh Historical Society hosted journalist and author Claudia Smith Brinson on April 30 to speak as part of the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit, Voices and Votes – Democracy in America, which will be in the Society’s African American Archives, adjacent to the museum, until May 28.
Introducing Brinson to a small group gathered in the auditorium of Williamsburg Technical College, the company’s vice president, Margaret Chandler, noted that the spectacular exhibit begins with this country’s founders taking “great leaps of faith.” , then explores how those who came after them took their own “big leaps” to make democracy work better for each succeeding generation. Chandler said Brinson in his book, Stories of Struggle: The Civil Rights Conflict in South Carolina, takes an in-depth look at one of these “great leaps of faith”.
Brinson, who worked as a journalist for 33 years, noted that when she was a young reporter at the state, she found that the life stories of black people she interviewed were very different from the stories told to her by white people. For example, she said, she had never read anything in The state on Briggs vs. Elliott, a 1947 lawsuit in Clarendon County by 20 black families from the Summerton area demanding that the school district provide a bus so their children would not have to walk nine miles to attend Scott’s Branch School. Although a three-judge panel in South Carolina ruled against the plaintiffs, the case became one of five cases litigated in the United States Supreme Court under the caption Brown v. Board of Educationa landmark case in which judges ordered the desegregation of all public schools in the United States.
When Brinson became interested in Briggs, three of the women who signed the petition still lived in Summerton. They had never told their story to anyone, not even to other family members. They cried while talking to him because they realized that their time on earth was getting shorter and shorter, and if they didn’t tell their stories, those stories of those important events would die with them. She said they trusted her because they saw that in other stories she wrote, she approached them with an open heart and an open mind. “I would come to them with an open mind and a box of tissues,” Brinson said. “We often cried together” as the stories unfolded.
Attorney Thurgood Marshall was consulted and worried about the consequences he knew the families would suffer, he suggested they give up the fight. But they were adamant. Marshall, who later served as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, was correct in his concern. Every person who signed the petition lost their job. Many of them eventually left the state so their children could get a better education. J. Waties Waring, the white judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina, sided with the petitioners. As a result of this and other pro-civil rights rulings, he was ostracized by other white Charlestonians and had rocks thrown through his windows, while the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in his yard. He too eventually left South Carolina.
Brinson noted that the families didn’t give up even though they were aware of what lay ahead. She said that while working on stories about Briggs vs. Elliott and while writing her book, she met some of the greatest people. “They weren’t angry; they all felt that they had done all they could to advance civil rights a little.
The story of Briggs vs. Elliott is just one local example of the many “leaps of faith” that are part of our ever-evolving democracy.
Brinson’s lecture was co-sponsored by the South Carolina Humanities Council. Voices and Votes – Democracy in America is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museums on Main Street program. Kingstree is the traveling exhibit’s first stop in South Carolina. Visit the exhibit at the African American Archives, 127 Hampton Avenue in Kingstree. It is open on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until May 26 and on Saturdays May 7 and 28 from noon to 4 p.m. Call 843-355-3303 for more information.