The Penn Center hosted an inaugural Civil Rights Symposium in November to mark its 152th anniversary on St. Helena Island, just outside Beaufort, South Carolina. This symposium attracted veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, scholars, and community partners to the Penn Center’s storied campus of wooden structures and Spanish Moss-laden live oaks. Civil Rights activists such as Millicent Brown, Connie Curry, Jim Campbell, Myrtle Glascoe, Chuck McDew, Bob Moses, Cleveland Sellers, Hank Thomas, and many others gathered to celebrate and discuss the Penn Center’s history with Civil Rights in South Carolina. The symposium also addressed the continuous need to ensure that all Americans have access to quality education and equal citizenship.
A central question of the two-day event was how to make the history of the Civil Rights Movement struggle relevant to young people today. As an example, one panel discussed the upcoming collaborative digital exhibition, “Somebody Had to Do It:” A History of Desegregation in South Carolina. Dr. Millicent Brown and Dr. Jon Hale are partnering with the Avery Research Center and the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI) to create an online exhibition that incorporates the stories of the primary actors of the movement to desegregate schools. This digital exhibition seeks to showcase experiences of the “first children” to desegregate schools through oral history videos as well as interactive maps and timelines to tell the history of desegregation in the students’ own words.
Drawing from personal experience, Dr. Brown spoke eloquently about the hopes as well as the unintended consequences that came with school desegregation. Brown noted those directly involved in desegregation “thought it would be important to get kids together, to expose them to the same information, and close the gap of achievement.” She as well as others had faith that transforming education would transform mindsets, communities, and ultimately the country. Yet, as a result of desegregation, many African-American schools shut down and many African-American teachers lost their positions in the community. Brown wants to honor those first children to desegregate schools while also placing their sacrifices into the proper, and complex historical context. Working with LDHI, Brown said that she and other first children are “so grateful for where the technology has taken us and for the ability to share with everyone our story, especially the young people.” Ciera Gordon, a graduate student at the College of Charleston helping to create the online exhibition, said, “watching [the oral history] videos, you can see how therapeutic the interview sessions were for people still dealing with their pent up stories.” Brown concluded, “The beauty of it is that it will be shared worldwide.” Look for the upcoming LDHI exhibition, “Somebody Had to Do It:” A History of Desegregation in South Carolina, in 2015.
Collecting archival documentation about the first students to desegregate schools is ongoing and you can submit information to Aaron Spelbring, email@example.com, Manager of Archival Services at the Avery Research Center.
Post by Harry Egner, College of Charleston
Graduate Assistant with the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative