More than 15 years ago, I embarked on one of the most ambitious projects of my pre-freelance career: Coordinating, researching and writing a variety of pieces for what became a 50-page special report on Brown v. Board of Education.
As the son of a history teacher and a lifelong history buff, having the opportunity to take a deep dive into one of the most — if not the most — significant U.S. Supreme Court decisions was a dream come true. Over several months, I interviewed Walter Cronkite, former Education Secretary Richard Riley, civil rights scholar John Hope Franklin, and Richard Kluger, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Simple Justice, the definitive book on the Brown decision.
But just as, if not even more significant, was the opportunity to visit and write about Summerton, S.C., the small town where the first of five lawsuits that led to Brown was filed. Working with my longtime friend Cecile Holmes, a University of South Carolina journalism professor, and her students, we looked at a variety of angles: the role of the church in desegregation battles as well as the lasting effects on the public schools and generations of children in Clarendon District No. 1.
My story, “From First to Footnote,” led off the special report in the April 2004 American School Board Journal and helped bring attention to families who stood up to an entrenched system of segregation in this small Southern town. McGraw-Hill, the textbook company, later purchased 50,000 reprints of the issue and distributed them to history clients in schools it served.
Earlier this year, I went back to Summerton to see what — if anything — had changed. Were the schools still segregated, thanks to a mostly silent but still entrenched resistance to integration? Are those connected to the original Briggs v. Elliot case — many of them in their late 70s and 80s — still carrying the torch?
What I found and what I saw has just been published in this month’s American School Board Journal. Unlike any other magazine piece I’ve written, it blends first-person narrative with updated reporting as well as photographs I took.
Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending. Fifteen years later, another generation of students has been deprived of an opportunity to be part of well-funded, integrated schools where the focus is on learning for the future, not trying to hold on to the past.
All thoughts and comments are welcome.