The children of the Old South have grown up now, their memories intact. Ophelia De Laine remembers what it felt like to be a child in segregated Clarendon County, S.C. At a day-long symposium last weekend that kicked off a six-month exhibit at the new Levine Museum of the New South in downtown Charlotte, it was the Old South under discussion.
"You have to remember what it was like to be in the colored school at that time," De Laine said. "You might have only three months of school, the rest of your time helping your family clear the land."
Her brother, B.B. De Laine, talked about what it was like to be yelled at and pelted with bottle caps and taunts, to be spat at through the windows of the white kids' bus as he walked to school. The black kids had no busses--some of them walking nine miles to get to school. The school building itself was in need of repair, with used textbooks or none, and B.B.'s mother taught a class that had 96 kids in it (though, again because of field work and other chores, they were rarely all there at the same time).
Another brother, Joe De Laine, spoke of how, even as a teenager, he had dreamed of going to France--like Richard Wright and other African Americans of his time--so he could escape that world and be a free man. He remembers how his father had told him, no, you stay here, "you stay right here and work it through right here."
The De Laines' father tried to change that, and very nearly became one of the most important litigants of the 20th century. He and the African American community of Clarendon County, S.C. put everything on the line so their kids could have as good an education as the white kids in the county. They did it at the same time some African American families in Kansas.
The three De Laines--a retired chemist/businessman, a teacher/administrator and faculty member at a major graduate medical and dental school--explained the lessons they learned from their father, the Rev. J.A. De Laine. He not only preached a social gospel, he lived it. A descendant of a free, landholding African American family in Clarendon County, Rev. De Laine supported the people who risked their jobs and livelihoods to put their names on the first petition for the bus (they were turned down by a school board that said it saw no reason to spend good money on "nigger children"). Rev. De Laine worked tirelessly for the community. Even out of state, he received support and raised money for the petitioners and 20 individuals who risked even more, signing their names to the suit that became "Briggs v. Elliot." The suit took the name of the first man to sign it, Harry Briggs, a World War II veteran. Other veterans were instrumental in this spontaneous uprising--they hadn't risked their lives for freedom overseas to come home to see their children treated like second-class citizens.
They all suffered for standing up, and eventually, one by one, they were all driven out of the community. But since Rev. De Laine was a leader, the fury of the local white community was directed particularly at him. The De Laine family saw their home burned down "under mysterious circumstances." Rev. De Laine's church burned. They were threatened with death. The De Laine home was fired upon (but not without the African American community protecting them, and Rev. De Laine himself shooting back, "marking" the assailants' car). Pictures of all of this, and the rifle Rev. De Laine used, as well as a burned Bible from the church, are in the exhibit, serving as living monuments to a "legal" struggle that was not carried out only in the courts.
After the shooting, Rev. De Laine was spirited away in the dead of night to the state of New York, which refused to extradite him back to the lynch mob justice of South Carolina at that time. And the struggle went on--all the way to the Supreme Court and the fateful decision of May 17, 1954, called "Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas." The decision was not called "Briggs v. Elliot" because the second of five suits bundled together became the first when the Briggs case was delayed on appeal.
A picture of Ophelia De Laine as a girl was on display above her head as she spoke on the panel. Looking to be about 8 or 9 years old, her face registers a quiet resolution, a self-determination, a reverie and a resolve. That image, in front of a white-only school bus, is the organizing image of the symposium and the exhibit. The exhibit is on display through Aug. 15.