From Racial Uplift to Protest Politics: South Carolina’s Teacher Salary Equalization Campaign

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By: Candace Cunningham
Ph.D. Candidate
University of South Carolina

South Carolina’s 1940s teacher salary equalization campaign was one of the state’s most vibrant and impactful moments of black teacher activism. The state’s first three equalization cases—Malissa Theresa Smith, Eugene C. Hunt, and Viola Louis Duvall—originated in Charleston, but Duvall’s case was the only one to make it to federal district court. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won Duvall’s case in 1944, but they were eager to guarantee salary equalization. When Albert N. Thompson, a teacher at Columbia’s Booker Washington Heights Elementary School, submitted his salary equalization petition to the Richland County School Board on June 7, 1944, the NAACP was more than willing to offer legal support. Thompson’s case would serve as the final nail in the coffin for unequal teacher salaries in South Carolina. The NAACP abandoned the local appeals process, and instead directly petitioned the federal district court.

On May 26, 1945, Judge Waites Waring ruled in Thompson’s favor, concluding that Columbia’s black teachers were entitled to a fair salary plan. Waring believed that since Duvall’s case, the school district had made an effort to alleviate unequal pay, but there was still a “startling disparity” between black and white teachers’ salaries, even when they had the same amount of experience. The Board had to begin a new classification system, effective spring 1946.

The state based the new classification system on the National Teacher Examination (NTE). Some white officials, such as Columbia school superintendent A. C. Flora, were hesitant to support the exam out of concern that it could prove that black teachers were better trained than some white teachers. But despite the overwhelming evidence that black teachers were dedicated professionals, they were also the products of an unequal education system. Ben D. Wood, the NTE creator, predicted that black teachers would score lower than white teachers. The South Carolina State Board of Education did a two-year study that supported Wood’s prediction, and beginning in 1945 all the state’s teachers were required to take the exam. Rev J. A. De Laine—the Clarendon County teacher who became the foremost leader in the state’s desegregation case, Briggs v. Elliott—rightly called the new certification program an “effort to legally dodge an equal salary decision by the Federal Court.”

South Carolina’s use of the NTE not only facilitated unequal salaries between black and white teachers but also emphasized the black community’s preexisting economic disparities. The gap between the highest and lowest paid teachers widened. Those who did well on the exam and earned higher wages were better financially situated to pursue advanced degrees and increase their earning potential. These additional economic and educational achievements helped legitimize the state’s use of standardized testing since white officials could now present this as proof of the exam’s alleged objectivity. Therefore, while race remained the defining factor in teacher salaries, post-NTE remuneration was also bound to individual socioeconomic status.

Nonetheless, the teacher salary equalization campaign also revealed the shifting tides of civil rights activism. These suits helped to increase the NAACP’s southern membership. They were sometimes the first experience African Americans had in formal protests and provided the foundation for a broader protest movement. Indeed, those who participated in the campaign found it transformative and defining. For NAACP secretary Modjeska Simkins the equalization campaign served as a catalyst—a move from racial uplift to protest politics. Furthermore, many of the individuals who helped realize teacher salary equalization—civil rights attorney Harold Boulware, teacher/activist Septima Clark, journalist/politician John McCray, military veteran/activist Osceola McKain, and Modjeska Simkins—would become seminal figures in the state’s civil rights movement. As this campaign transformed activists it also transformed the whole movement.

These individuals are only a few of the people who played a vital role in Columbia’s rich cultural history. To learn more about them and other black Carolinians please join Historic Columbia for one of its Lunch & Learn Series as it celebrates Black History Month, February 21 & 28, 12-1PM at the Mann-Simons Site, 1403 Richland Street.

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Historic Columbia’s Jubilee: Festival of Heritage Celebrates 36 Years on August 23

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Celebrating the rich cultural heritage and entrepreneurial spirit of one African American family—who lived and worked on the same property in downtown Columbia, S.C. for more than 140 years—Historic Columbia presents the 36th annual Jubilee: Festival of Heritage. This free, family-friendly event will be held at the Mann-Simons Site at 1403 Richland Street from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 23.

For 36 years, families and friends have come from across the state to celebrate African American heritage at Jubilee. When the festival started in 1978, it was a small community celebration of African American heritage and history. Over the years, Jubilee has grown into a can’t-miss event that draws attendees from all over the state and region.

This year’s Jubilee celebrates the legacies of the Mann-Simons family as well as Modjeska Monteith Simkins. The expanded, two-block festival will span the 1900 and 2000 blocks of Marion Street, stretching from the Mann-Simons Site at the corner of Richland and Marion streets to the Modjeska Simkins House at the corner of Marion and Elmwood streets. Both sites serve as tangible links between early 19th-century African American life and the civil rights and social justice movements that arose from these roots.

More than 3,000 guests attended the festival in 2013 to celebrate the remarkable life of Celia Mann and her descendants with a variety of activities, including hands-on demonstrations, an array of musical entertainment, and vendors with African-influenced and traditional merchandise. This year, multi-generational crowds will enjoy the following:

Live Entertainment!

Demonstrations and Crafts!

Hands-on demonstrations and craft tents from some of the region’s most skilled artists and craftsmen, including:

Discounted Tours and Exhibits!

Tour the Mann-Simons Site ($1 admission), take the celebrated bus tour, “Home places, work places, resting places: African-American Heritage Sites Tour” ($2), and view the new exhibit at Modjeska Monteith Simkins House ($1), exploring the life of Modjeska Monteith Simkins, considered “the matriarch of Civil Rights activists of South Carolina.” The new exhibit and accompanying outdoor interpretive signage broadens audiences’ understanding of the past, present and future through disciplines of history, archeology, African American and southern studies.

Street Fair!

An assortment of exhibitors, vendors and purveyors of tasty food and drink will be on hand, and Marion Street between Richland and Elmwood will be blocked off for this vibrant fair! Historic Columbia is accepting applications for vendors until August 8 (applications can be found at historiccolumbia.org).

Friends of Jubilee

Are you interested in supporting this free community festival? Become a Friend of Jubilee! With your donation to Jubilee, you will receive recognition at the festival, free tour passes and more. Visit historiccolumbia.org to learn more and make a donation.

Jubilee: Festival of Heritage is sponsored by Publix Super Markets Charities; The LINKS, Inc.; Johnson, Toal & Battiste; AT&T; The Big DM and Hot 103.9; Carolina Panorama; McDonald’s; AARP of South Carolina; The Office of Jim Clyburn; Elam Financial Group; Palmer Memorial Chapel; South State Bank; Vista Smiles; Party Reflections; Ahern Rentals; City of Columbia; Richland County; and the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington.

For more information on the 36th annual Jubilee: Festival of Heritage, please visit historiccolumbia.org or call 803.252.1770 ext. 23.

 

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Making a Way Out of No Way: The Legacy of Modjeska Monteith Simkins Opens at Simkins’ House March 16

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Historic Columbia opens its first exhibit at the Modjeska Monteith Simkins House on Sunday, March 16 with an open house from 1 to 5 pm. Through this permanent exhibit, Historic Columbia tells the story of South Carolina’s most influential human rights advocate of the 20th century.

Simkins worked for social reform all her life, during a time when it was not only difficult for her to be of color but also a woman. While heavily involved with the NAACP and other activist groups, Simkins’ most significant work was on the 1950 South Carolina Federal District Court case Briggs v. Elliott, a lawsuit that called for equalization of black Clarendon County Schools with white schools. This case was eventually reworked as one of several cases that directly challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In 1981, a coalition of civil rights groups including the Columbia NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, the National Council of Negro Women and the Urban League honored Simkins for her untiring efforts to aid the underrepresented and underprivileged. Later, she received the state’s highest honor from the governor, the Order of the Palmetto, for her lifetime of work.

This exhibit combines images, text, video and never-before displayed artifacts to offer unprecedented coverage of the activist, her life, work and lasting impact on the state of South Carolina. This exhibit is offered free to the public on five dates in March and April thanks to the generous support of our sponsors:

  • Sunday, March 16, 1 pm to 5 pm – Opening Day: view the exhibit and speak with scholars, activists and family members who knew and worked with Mrs. Simkins. Speakers include Dr. Cleveland Sellers, Dr. Henri Monteith Treadwell, Beryl Dakers, Brett Bursey and Dr. Bobby Donaldson. Each will give informal comments about Mrs. Simkins on the half hour throughout the afternoon and be available for a short time to speak with attendees.
  • Thursday, March 20, 11 am to 1 pm
  • Tuesday, March 25, 4 pm to 6 pm
  • Thursday, April 3, 11 am to 1 pm
  • Tuesday, April 8, 4 pm to 6 pm

Private tours can also be arranged for groups of 10 or more.

Home to Modjeska Monteith Simkins from 1932 until her death on April 5, 1992, the Modjeska Monteith Simkins House is a one-story cottage at 2025 Marion Street in downtown Columbia that was used for lodging and as a meeting space for local and national civil rights leaders and NAACP lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall during a time when blacks were excluded from city hotels.

Making a Way Out of No Way is made possible by Humanities Council SC, Columbia SC 63, South Carolina Community Bank, Martha Cunningham Monteith, Johnson, Toal & Battiste, P.A., the city of Columbia, Richland County and the Cultural Council of Richland and Lexington Counties.

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