1951, under the governorship of James F. Byrnes,
Carolina’s school equalization program emerged in response to a growing black
challenge to the Jim Crow system. The
end of World War II brought economic, social, and racial changes to the state
and the nation. In the late 1940s the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the main
organization dedicated to racial justice in the United States, initiated
lawsuits in several southern states demanding racial equalization in higher
education facilities to improve black education. States such as Georgia and Mississippi began
to make superficial attempts to equalize black and white schools. Upon the recommendation of a
spite of growing challenges to the “separate but equal” aspect of segregation,
South Carolina needed to address a significant problem in the education of its
primary and secondary students. Several
recently issued reports and statistics highlighted the poor state of
The Peabody survey revealed the inequalities between rural and urban schools as well as differences in funding, transportation, teacher training, and school facilities between black and white schools. The statistics on school buildings reflected the extreme disparity between black and white schools both in rural and urban areas. In 1947, the school plant investment for whites totaled approximately $221 per pupil compared to $45 per pupil for blacks. Economic pressures during the Depression and the scarcity of building materials during World War II meant that the state constructed few schools for several decades. Schools across the state were in varying stages of disrepair, and the differences between rural and urban schools were especially stark. Overcrowded classrooms, overworked teachers, and the lack of running water and electricity in many of the rural schools compounded educational problems. The survey estimated that the state and local school boards needed to invest ninety million dollars to improve school building facilities and bring South Carolina’s schools close to the national average in school buildings and equipment (Public Schools of South Carolina, 192-208).
his election as governor, James Byrnes revealed details of his educational plan
to improve South Carolina’s schools to the General Assembly on
received the General Assembly’s support for his three-cent school tax after a
legal threat to South Carolina’s racially segregated schools. In 1949, encouraged by the leadership of Reverend
J.A. DeLaine and the support of the NAACP, black parents in the Summerton area
case, as originally filed, accused white Clarendon County school officials of
refusing to uphold the law requiring that segregated facilities be equal. Judge J. Waites Waring, the federal district
court judge assigned to Briggs v. Elliott,
conferred with attorney Thurgood Marshall after
Carolina’s white politicians scrambled to put Byrnes’ proposed legislation in
place to bolster their defense of segregation.
Attorney Robert McCormick Figg, counsel for the
1951 appropriations act incorporated recommendations from the 1947 Peabody
survey and numerous educational planning guides in an effort to enhance the
administration of South Carolina’s schools in addition to providing funding for
new construction. Following national
trends in educational administration and planning, the General Assembly required
counties to consolidate schools and districts, abolished all local boards of
education with less than seven members, and required newly-created school
districts to survey the building and educational needs of their schools before
receiving money from the state. The
State Educational Finance Commission supervised these changes and reviewed
applications for building funds. The
commission was to oversee “the needs for new construction, new equipment, new
transportation facilities, and such other improvements as are necessary to
enable all children of
of both races across the state opposed the new sales tax. White citizens resented paying taxes to
support black schools. Other whites
believed that the school building campaign and the sales tax did not need to be
implemented until the court ruled in the Briggs
v. Elliott case. A group of
businessmen filed an unsuccessful suit against Governor James Byrnes and the
Educational Finance Commission challenging the constitutionality of the sales
tax and bond referendum. Merchants opposed
the extra paperwork and bureaucracy imposed by the sales tax. Both black and white citizens of
the purpose of the sales tax was to prevent desegregation, the appropriations
act did incorporate provisions for educational change and improvements. The act required counties to survey their
existing school plants to assist in planning new construction. Surveys ensured that districts planned
schools according to population needs.
Counties also submitted plans for consolidation of districts and schools
within the county. Consolidation reduced
administrative costs and improved efficiency in school administration. The Educational Finance Commission approved
the survey and consolidation plans of each county. To oversee and implement these requirements,
the commission hired former superintendent of
Many local school board officials and parents resisted the changes imposed by the equalization program. School board trustees, many of whom lost their positions, opposed the consolidation of schools and districts. Because a state agency, the Educational Finance Commission, administered the funds for the new building program, many school officials and politicians resented the loss of local political control over the distribution of state funds. In 1953, the South Carolina Senate unsuccessfully proposed returning control over school construction plans to the counties. Schools, no matter how small, often provided community centers for rural areas, so many small towns and communities opposed consolidation and closing the schools in their district. Furthermore, consolidation meant that more children would need transportation to school. Many parents protested the bus routes, especially the commission’s directive that no child within a one-and-a-half mile radius would be eligible for state-supported transportation (“School Building Return”).
The school equalization program authorized state oversight on transportation and building equalization projects, yet the Educational Finance Commission relied on local school board officials to survey the needs of their schools and apply for sufficient funds to equalize schools. Some districts built black schools and did not appropriate enough money to furnish equipment for the new schools. Others balked at even building schools for blacks. For example, officials did not fully complete a building project in Saluda. The new black school lacked a planned wing providing twelve additional classrooms and lacked adequate equipment. Administrators in Charleston County refused to authorize construction of an additional black high school to replace one that had previously closed (NAACP Papers, Part 3, Series C, reel 2; Brown, 74).
major obstacle to the school equalization programs and educational reform on
the local level stemmed from the resistance of local school officials. Local officials refused to supplement the statewide
equalization campaign by appropriating local funds to support
equalization. Furthermore, white
officials and parents wanted to secure funds solely for white school building
projects. The Educational Finance
Commission responded by denying many local requests for funding because the
school district had not addressed the needs of black schools. The commission refused to authorize white
school construction projects for a district if the district had not filed plans
for black school construction. Many
local officials opposed equalization to the point where they did not apply for
any funding from the state. In
the millions of dollars spent throughout South Carolina on school equalization,
the state’s effort to forestall an adverse court decision failed. On
Carolina continued its two-part strategy to prevent an implementation of the
Supreme Court decision by equalizing school facilities and attempting to
legally evade the impact of Brown. The school equalization program provided
Nevertheless, shortly after the Brown decision, Byrnes halted all equalization building projects and approvals until the state attorney general ruled on the legality of state money supporting schools designated as “black” or “white.” Byrnes expressed his concern that the state would continue to spend money “for the purpose of equalizing school facilities between the races, [which] has now been prohibited by the Supreme Court.” (Byrnes Papers: “James F. Byrnes to Julian H. Kuhne”). Byrnes stated his belief in a closed session with the South Carolina School Committee, the legislative committee established to maintain racial segregation, that if desegregation came to South Carolina, whites would send their children to private schools, and the money the state spent on schools would be wasted. Publicly, however, Byrnes encouraged the citizens of the state to continue to support equalization, confident that South Carolina would find legal ways to maintain segregation and the public school system ( Byrnes Papers: “Minutes of the South Carolina School Committee,” 15 June 1954).
In response to Byrnes’ stop-work order, the School Committee began speaking with educators and citizens about the school building program. The committee met with representatives of the state NAACP to gauge the organization’s opinion on the building program. A representative stated that “he felt that the building program should be continued because the children must have schools but that he felt also that there should be some Negroes on the Educational Finance Commission and on the local boards of education.” He did not comment on the issue of integration or equalization. The Palmetto State Teachers’ Association, an organization of black educators, also believed that the building campaign should continue to improve school facilities (Byrnes Papers: “Minutes of the S.C. School Committee,” 14 July 1954).
One white school official also urged resuming the building program, stating that “stopping the program places [South Carolina] in a bad light and the program is just as right now as it ever was.” White educators stated the widely-held belief that “if we have equal facilities, ninety-nine out of one hundred negroes will want to go to segregated schools.” A Richland County school official, concerned that his district’s project for the construction of a black high school affected by the stop-order could lead to a desegregation lawsuit since the school district had no high school for black students, also supported continuing the building program as a way to maintain segregation in his school district (Byrnes Papers: “Minutes of the S.C. School Committee,” 23 June 1954, 15 July 1954).
Dr. C.A. Johnson, the sole black member of the Educational Finance Commission, also spoke before the School Committee on the views of South Carolina blacks and school equalization. Johnson, hired after the NAACP revealed in the Briggs testimony that the commission had no black members, explained to the School Committee that “his work is to contact Negroes all over the State where construction projects are proposed or in progress to get the Negroes’ views.” Johnson dutifully reported to the committee that blacks wanted equal school facilities, and the only opposition came from state NAACP president James Hinton and “his crowd…because they know that if ample facilities are provided, the Negroes are going to be satisfied.” While Johnson’s statement about Hinton reinforced white beliefs that blacks wanted equalization instead of integration, Johnson also identified the dissatisfaction with the equalization program among blacks in Charleston and in Beaufort, who did not feel that the schools in those cities were truly equal (Byrnes Papers: “Minutes of the S.C. School Committee,” 15 July 1954). Fearing that continued black dissatisfaction could lead to a desegregation lawsuit, the School Committee hoped to resume the program.
hearing testimony from both whites and blacks, the committee recommended that
the state resume the school equalization program. On
Byrnes and the legislature continued to support the equalization program in the aftermath of the Brown decision. In 1955, the legislature approved a bond increase to $137,500,000, providing approximately $62,000,000 more revenue for school buildings. By the time Byrnes left the governor’s office in 1955, the school building program that he helped implement in 1951 had significantly changed South Carolina’s educational system. His sales tax and school equalization program spent $124,329,394.11 for school construction. The Educational Finance Commission allocated two-thirds of these funds to improve and construct black schools (State Educational Finance Commission, 1).
Although South Carolina’s school equalization program failed to prevent a Supreme Court ruling for desegregation, the program continued to provide South Carolina’s white leaders with political justification for resisting the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate as part of a broader effort to avoid integration throughout society. George Bell Timmerman, Jr., Byrnes’ successor in the governor’s office, continued to support the school building program: “I strongly recommend that we continue our equalization program in good faith. In no better way can we preserve good schools with peace and friendly relations.” (Timmerman Papers: “A Speech Prepared”). By the time Timmerman assumed office in 1955, the Educational Finance Commission had approved approximately 775 school building projects (“Text of Timmerman’s Address”).
By 1955, the Educational Finance Commission and many educators believed that black schools were substantially equal to white schools. Every school district in the state had a black high school completed or under construction. The Educational Finance Commission pushed for all approved black high schools to open for the 1955-1956 school year. Because of the Briggs case and possible outcomes, the first years of the program ensured black elementary and high school projects had precedence over other needed construction (Byrnes Papers: “E.R. Crow”; “Text of Timmerman’s Address”). As districts finished construction of and improvement in black schools, the commission funded more white school construction projects. By 1963, the year black Charlestonians won their legal fight to desegregate their public school system, the funds distributed for building projects had relatively equalized between the races. The Educational Finance Commission had approved over $214 million in building projects since the inception of the program, with 53.9 percent of the total funds appropriated for white schools and 46.1 percent of the funds appropriated for black schools. In 1966 the state Department of Education assumed the roles and responsibilities of the Educational Finance Commission (Hollings Papers; Kirk, 58).
While the school equalization legislation fulfilled Governor Byrnes’ promise to reform education in the state through the reorganization of school districts and the consolidation of small, ineffective schools, problems remained. They included overcrowding and lack of teachers, equipment, and facilities, none of which were completely addressed by the program. School enrollment did increase, and the number of students staying in school until graduation increased from ten percent in 1945 to twenty percent in 1953 (Ramsaur, 98). The program constructed new black schools, but many of these schools lacked libraries, gymnasiums, and athletic fields commonly provided to white schools. Furthermore, the school equalization program concentrated on equalizing buildings and provided no state control over the amount of local appropriations spent on schools, no oversight over the equalization of curricula between black and white schools, and little control over the routes of bus transportation. The equalization program addressed the structural inequalities in South Carolina’s schools, but it did not remedy decades of underfunding and lack of state support of black education.
Many of the over 700 “equalization” schools still exist as of the writing of this paper. Some remain in use as schools, while others are now Head Start centers, daycares, businesses, community centers, or offices. Other schools stand abandoned or were demolished for newer schools. For more information on the equalization program, the schools constructed, and a partial list of the schools, see http://scequalizationschools.org.
Rebekah Dobrasko is a historian with the South Carolina State Historic Preservation Office in the Department of Archives and History. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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