Charleston's first students to integrate city schools gather to commemorate 50th anniversary of desegregation

Oveta Glover talks about the day she desegregated James Simons Elementary School at the age of 9 in 1963. She was part of a panel discussion Thursday on commemorating 50 years of desegregation of Charleston schools, held at the College of Charleston. Buy this photo

Oveta Glover held her father's hand and listened to his final instructions before she walked into the all-white school, Mitchell Elementary.

Desegregation of Charleston County schools

Twelve black students entered all-white Charleston schools for the first time in 1963. That desegregation was nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision and four years after the district was sued by black activists to desegregate.

Minerva Brown was the initial plaintiff in that local case, and the lawsuit later bore the name of her younger sister, Millicent, who was among the first to desegregate Rivers High.

South Carolina was the second to last state in the country to desegregate its public schools.

“Baby, just hold on to me,” he told the 6-year-old. “I gotcha.”

Glover recalled that moment from 1960 on Thursday for a crowd gathered at the College of Charleston. She described walking down a hallway lined with parents, teachers and students, and a boy who tried to poke her with a pencil.

It would be another three years before Glover would be allowed to enroll in an all-white school, but she and 11 other students were among the first to integrate Charleston County schools.

Some of those trailblazers came together Thursday to remember the 50-year anniversary of school desegregation in Charleston.

“It was very important to do what was done,” said Glover, now the student scholarship coordinator at Voorhees College in Denmark. “And it's important to understand what we did.”

The event was part of a two-day lecture series hosted by the college's School of Education, Health, and Human Performance, and additional gatherings are being planned for the future. The idea was to commemorate — not celebrate — the anniversary, and to show how the city's past affects its present.

“Without people understanding where these issues came from, how can we possibly make decisions about how to improve our broken public education system?” said Jon Hale, an assistant professor of education who helped organize the event.

It was a sometimes emotional day, such as when Charleston County Superintendent Nancy McGinley apologized on behalf of the district to each of the former students.

“I want to say we were wrong,” McGinley told them. “We discriminated against children. We treated you badly and we will do better. We must do better.”

She hugged each of them, and the more than 100 audience members rose from their seats and clapped. McGinley also read a proclamation from the city that this would be “School Access Toward Equity” day.

Clarice Hines-Lewis was another one of the pioneers who desegregated Charleston schools. She was 12 when she desegregated Memminger Elementary.

At the time, her white peers told her she would be poisoned if she ate lunch in the cafeteria, and a group of men would wait on a corner near the school to spit on and hit her as she walked home every day.

“I'm still a little post traumatic,” said Hines-Lewis, a nurse at the Naval Health Clinic in Charleston.

When she moved on to the High School of Charleston, she said more black students were integrating and she was able to make friends. But she never felt comfortable there, and that feeling remains true 50 years later.

Millicent Brown was among the first students who desegregated Rivers High, and she was the main plaintiff in a lawsuit that eventually desegregated the school district. She emphasized that desegregation was necessary, but not because black students couldn't be well educated unless they sat next to white students, or because black schools were so bad that they needed to leave them.

“It was about the principle of justice and the equitable distribution of resources that made us determine we had to get rid of segregated schools,” she said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly characterized Millicent Brown's reasons for why she felt desegregation was necessary.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.

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