Once slavery began in Orangeburg County, blacks had to endure a wide variety of life conditions and experiences.
They had to deal with the reality that within their slave status, they were divided by way of their nation of origin. The varying circumstances of living in human bondage brought about much division in the blacks as they journeyed toward the mountain of freedom.
The family structure as we know it today only existed for the whites. Male slaves were simply free labor that bore no form of being responsible for shelter, food, clothing, child care or any of the subsistence as it pertained to their livelihood. Female slaves were responsible for having babies, especially bearing males and would work in the “big house” or do light field duties.
Being responsible or taking on responsibility for the black males got its start in the year of 1865.
In the early 1800s, a Northern reporter described the black slaves in South Carolina as being “spineless and having no backbone.” When the Civil War ended in 1865, they were now required to handle all of their affairs without the guidance of their master.
Today, fragments and remnants of slavery situations continue to reside in the body, mind and soul of many blacks. Because of this, blacks live in a life of much uncertainty and sometimes fear. Faith and courage were very difficult to instill in the framework of slavery.
By 1947, black South Carolinians began to express themselves without fearing retaliation from the white power structure when Harry and Eliza Briggs, along with the Rev. J.A. Delaine and others from Clarendon County, filed a lawsuit against the school district in the case known as Briggs vs. Elliott.
Briggs’ stance cranked up the engines in the civil rights movement for South Carolina and the nation.
For some reason, the Briggs case was coupled with other cases around the nation that ended up becoming the Brown vs. Topeka, Kan., case which made it to the United States Supreme Court.
After the striking down of segregated public schools by the United States Supreme Court in 1954, the civil rights movement took on a path of full speed ahead.
Black Orangeburg County was thrust deeper into another mode of life transition when on April 19, 1956, the South Carolina General Assembly passed a law requiring state workers who were members of the NAACP to either revoke their membership or resign their jobs. As the law was to be enforced, many black teachers around the state crafted ways to hide information about their connections.
But in Elloree, a movement by the black teachers of the Elloree Training School changed the course of South Carolina history. With that incident, Orangeburg anchored itself into a position of civil rights movement importance.
On May 17, 1956, The T&D reported “Negro Teachers Resign From Elloree Positions”: “At least 21 Negro teachers at the Elloree Training School will not resume their duties here this fall when the colored school begins its September term. The announcement was made today by the Board of Trustees.
“What apparently prompted the trustees’ decision was the report of refusal of some teachers to express their personal views concerning integrated schools and NAACP membership. This was partly substantiated by the trustees.
“‘We’re going to run our schools for the best interests of the community,’ declared W. B. Bookhardt, chairman of the Board of Trustees. Harold Felder, Elmo Shuler, Ulmer Weeks and T. T. McEachern, the remaining trustees, confirmed Bookhardt’s statement. Jim Owen, Jr. of the Orangeburg County Board of Education was also present.
“Last Friday, trustees related application blanks for another year’s employment were distributed to teachers. Anyone desiring to return this fall was requested to complete the application and return it Monday to School Supt. M.G. Austin.
“Trustees said that only seven members of the school’s 31 teachers submitted applications on the requested day. They were identified as Mary B. Watson, Willie Mae Walker, Gladys White, Alice White, Francis Everett Jr., Ellen Williams and Eliza Williams.
“‘When Mr. Austin went around on Monday to pick up the application blanks,’ Bookhardt continued, ‘he got only those seven. Some of the others said they were no NAACP members, but refused to fill in the blanks. Others declined to say if they were NAACP members and also refused to fill in the applications.’
“‘On Tuesday, and acting on the instructions of the Board of Trustees,’ Bookhardt said, ‘Mr. Austin went back around to see about the applications. Teachers were asked to either sign the applications or submit their resignations. Eighteen resigned, and three others refused to sign or resign.’
“A reporter was shown 18 pieces of paper bearing the inscription ‘I hereby resign as teacher in the Elloree Training School effective May 31, 1956.’ Each signature was notarized.
“Seventeen teachers, trustees reported, ‘actually refused’ to complete the required application. The other teacher, Juanita R. Wells, had resigned before the applications were circulated.
“Teachers refusing to sign the papers, according to trustees, were Elizabeth L. Cleveland, Betty Smith, Charles E. Davis, Ola L. Bryan, James D. Mays, Jestine DeLee, Betty C. Green, Rosa Deloris Davis, Laura L. Prickett, Ernestine W. Dawkins, Rosa M. Haigler, Mary E. Jackson, Hattie M. Fulton, Robert D. Carmichael, Howard Shelton, Vivian V. Floyd and Clarence V. Tobin.
“Trustees asked the names of the three teachers refusing to submit applications and also refusing to resign their position effective May 31, identified the trio as Lelia Mae Summers, Rutha Mae Ingram and Frazier H. Keitt. The majority of the teachers held degrees from South Carolina State or Claflin University.”
Some of the questions on the application were:
- Do you belong to the NAACP?
- Do you support the NAACP in any way (money or attendance at meetings)?
- Do any of your family members belong to the NAACP?
- Do you believe in the aims of the NAACP?
- Do you favor integration of the schools?
- Do you feel that parents of your school know that no school will be operated if they are integrated?
- Do you feel you will be happy in an integrated school knowing that parents and students do not favor this system?
- Do you feel that an integrated school system would better fit the colored race for their life’s work?
- Do you think that you are qualified to teach an integrated class in a satisfactory manner (check one and give reason for your answer?)
- If you should join the NAACP while employed in this school, please notify the Superintendent and chairman of the board of trustees.
This courageous and bold manner of action taken up by the teachers at Elloree caught national attention from the media because of the overwhelming voices of blacks on that issue. As far back as 1865 after the Civil War, blacks would almost never stand up or speak up against conditions in which they worked publicly or privately and surely it was definitely not tolerated during the years of slavery.
Although the “Elloree 21” took this posture, they never met to plan a strategy in dealing with the state law prohibiting state, county and municipal officials from hiring members of the NAACP. Basically, the law was enacted in retaliation for the NAACP leading the movement to integrate the public schools.
Those teachers took on the position of saying their constitutional rights had been violated and that they were simply standing up for what they believed. Expressing their feeling in this situation brought about many challenges of livelihood for their future and their families.
The black parents in Elloree played a role by raising the issue of better educational opportunities for their children through good books, supplies, facilities and transportation.
Surprisingly, the principal Charles E. Davis and his wife Rosa stood at the front of the line in this fight for constitutional rights. This stance to include the black principal along with the teachers was considered somewhat rare and unusual for that period in South Carolina history.
Around the state, there were smaller numbers of black teachers who took a similar position against the 1956 law.
Civil Rights activist Septema Clark and eleven others refused to renounce their membership in Charleston and were fired. Clark urged the teachers in South Carolina to show solidarity. That did not happen.
Most of the black teachers in South Carolina abided by the law even when they felt that it took away their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and association. Black teachers across the state completed the questionnaire and signed their application to keep a job position.
On May 22, 1956, the T&D reported: “Elloree School Receives 54 Applications”: “School officials in Elloree said Monday that 54 teacher applications have been received by the Board of Trustees since news stories were published in regard to the recent resignations at the Elloree Training School.
“Eight applications including those from New York, Bookhardt continued, were out-of-state requests. The remaining 46 were from South Carolina, including several from two colored Orangeburg colleges.”
The Afro-American News reported on September 1, 1956: “L.A. Blackmon, president of the Elloree NAACP, said the people here will be against them. We don’t think they should have taken the jobs of the other teachers who had taken a noble stance.”
Striving to move forward, 18 teachers filed a federal lawsuit aimed at overthrowing the state law in September 1956. With their decision, dreams of returning to Elloree were completely washed away.
The T&D reported on October 23, 1956, “Federal Judge Defers Decision In Case Challenging State Law Against NAACP”: “Judge John J. Parker told attorneys they would have 20 days in which to file additional briefs and 10 more to file replies. Judges Ashton H. Williams and George Bell Timmerman Sr. presided with Judge Parker.
“During morning testimony, C. E. Davis, former principal and teacher at the Elloree School, said he was not a member of the NAACP and that he did not know if other plaintiffs are members. He testified he and other plaintiffs were told to fill out a questionnaire last May by School Supt. M. G. Austin Jr. and when the forms were returned incomplete, were asked to resign. Austin, the second witness, verified Davis’ testimony and added that none of them could have been re-employed since they failed to apply for the 1956-57 term.
“During oral arguments, plaintiffs’ attorney Jack Greenberg said the law violates rights of freedom of speech and association.
“Speaking in defense of the law, State Atty. Gen. T.C. Callison said the real problem is one of who operates the school system — federal authority or the states. Asst. Atty. Gen. James Verner charged the NAACP with ‘disturbing the domestic tranquility and causing enmity and bad feelings between people who have always lived together.’ The suit listed Ola L. Bryan et al versus M. G. Austin et al.”
As the rounds of court hearings drew closer to being reviewed at the United States Supreme Court, the state of South Carolina began to come to the realization that this case would be lost if it reached that level. Therefore, the General Assembly in 1957 decided to repeal the previous law pertaining to state workers holding membership in the NAACP.
Rosa Haigler Stroman, one of the teachers who resigned, later said, “We took a position and stood by it not thinking about the consequences. As to locating another job, it took me four years to find another teaching position. Everywhere I went, I was told that I was a troublemaker and could not be hired. Even a family member who was a principal refused to hire me. It was a very stressful time in our lives.
“Eventually, I was offered a position in Bluffton, Beaufort County. Later, my principal wrote a letter to the Elloree School and said I was one of the best teachers he had,” Stroman said. After the court case, Principal Charles Davis worked with the American Friend Service Committee of Greensboro, N.C. to ensure each of the plaintiffs were given $50.
“As the years passed by, I learn to cope with the past better but I can’t forget it,” Stroman said.
Another former teacher, Mrs. Hattie Fulton Anderson, said, “It took me seven years to get a teaching position. It was heartbreaking and a bitter pill to swallow when other black applicants applied for our former jobs. Over the years, I have had some reflections of that history-making time. We changed the course of history.”
The action taken by black teachers at Elloree was for that time was considerably rare. Many black teachers dropped their membership in the NAACP in droves and sometimes cut off total involvement in civil rights activities. Following through with their commitment, the teachers in Elloree paid a very high price for the position they decided upon. Not finding teaching positions in the next school term brought about financial hardships and mental stress and certainly the feeling of not being supported by their own race transmitted into a feeling of abandonment.
The “Elloree 21” won the battle for the constitutional rights of every black teacher in the state of South Carolina and should be recognized and honored in the highest manner for such contribution to our state and especially to the black educators.
Richard Reid is president of the Orangeburg Historical and Genealogical Society. His mission is researching Orangeburg history, with a particular emphasis on the role of African-Americans in that history. He can be contacted at email@example.com.