South Carolina: South Carolina Equalization Schools

Map of the South Carolina Expansion School program
"South Carolina's Education Revolution: A Report of Progress in the South"

Map courtesy of South Carolina State Library.

The South Carolina Equalization Schools website tells the historic of Southern school education, focused on segregated African American education, and highlights the South Carolina equalization schools. Constructed between 1951 and 1959, these 700 schools are physical reminders of the state’s response to calls for “separate but equal” public schools. South Carolina’s African American parents filed a lawsuit in 1951, called Briggs v. Elliott. This case, led by the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was the first case in the nation to sue for desegregation of elementary and secondary public schools, as opposed to calling for “equal” facilities.

Ultimately, the Briggs case went to the United States Supreme Court as part of the Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring public school segregation asunconstitutional. In South Carolina, the General Assembly followed the lead of fellow southern states of Mississippi and Georgia by creating the state’s first sales tax in order to construct new African American schools to prove thestate maintained “separate but equal” schools. In South Carolina, the white political leaders felt an urgency not found in other states due to the Briggs lawsuit. The state spent over $500 million in the first few years ofthe program, transforming the landscape of the state and building new black elementary and high schools. Many counties received a public black high school for the first time.This website tells the story of these equalization schools, giving a statewide historic context grounding the school construction program in SouthCarolina’s racially segregated public education.

Pages highlight Rosenwald schools, the Briggs v. Elliott case, and the final integration of South Carolina’s schools. Other pages highlight equalization programsin other states in the South.In addition to the historic context, the website provides information forpeople interested in documenting and preserving South Carolina equalization schools. There is guidance for listing schools in the National Register of Historic Places, along with links to successful nominations,links to preservation and funding resources, and suggestions for researching school history. The website also contains an extensive bibliography for researchers to use.The center of the website is a list of known equalization schools in South Carolina. This is mostly a crowdsourced list provided by visitors to the website that email schools for inclusion in the list.

When South Carolina created its tax credit and school funding program, it also created the South Carolina State Educational Finance Commission (SEFC) to oversee the school projects and distribute funding. Unfortunately, therecords associated with the SEFC were stored poorly and had to be destroyedupon transfer to the state archives. Therefore, there is no comprehensivelist of equalization schools, and the website is an excellent resource for compiling the list. Another key project embedded in the website is a digital exhibit on the Charleston County equalization school program. Charleston County is on South Carolina’s coast and contains the historic city of Charleston.

The county encompasses both urban and rural areas, providing a detailed case study of how one county addressed its equalization program among suburban growth. Portions of the county, especially the rural seaislands that were primarily African American, got their first public high school. Previously, rural students had to attend high school in Charleston, and lacked transportation to get to the schools. For the first time, African American students on Johns Island and in rural Hollywood, SC, could attend public high schools in their communities.While the intent behind the equalization school program was to preserve racial segregation, Southern cities and states ultimately faced integration. Equalization schools, most open less than 20 years, were closed, repurposed into “alternate” schools, and many African American high schools became elementary schools under the integration plans. The story behind the equalization schools became lost. This website is one way to bring the story back to life and show the extent of how many Southern states fought against the desegregation of public schools.The South Carolina equalization school story has been told in many different venues, including in the National Register of Historic Places, in South Carolina state historical markers, as a lesson plan in Teaching with Historic Places, highlighted by the National Council on Public History and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and in local and state newspapers across South Carolina.In the past month, over 700 visitors came to the website. The majority of thevisitors went to the “Known Schools” page, typically searching for information on certain schools. Visitors are able to provide feedbackabout South Carolina equalization schools and ask questions through a comment form, email, or through the SC Equalization Schools Facebook page.When understanding and researching the United States Civil Rights Movement, it is important to know the forces working against the leaders and institutions of the Movement.

The State of South Carolina, inaddition to other Southern states, brought its political force to bear against the African American parents, teachers, and leaders of the state thatwanted better education for their children. The state developed theequalization school program in direct response to a legal challenge to thesegregated public school system. For the first time in its existence, South Carolina poured significant public funds into its black publicschools.The equalization school push was not enough. South Carolina lost its case in Briggs v. Elliott, when the US Supreme Court ruled against it in Brown v. Board of Education.

The state continued to build newsegregated schools, but was unable to hold back the tide of black parents continuing to file desegregation lawsuits. The story of the equalization school movement is a story of a last-ditch statewide effort to maintain segregated public schools. The Civil Rights Movement and protestors eventually won, desegregating the state’s universities, high schools, and elementary schools. The story of the equalization schools shows the significant political, economic, and social obstacles the Civil Rights Movement had to overcome to make lasting change in South Carolina.

The South Carolina Equalization Schools website is part of the African American Civil Rights Network.

The African American Civil Rights Network recognizes the civil rights movement in the United States and the sacrifices made by those who fought against discrimination and segregation. Created by the African American Civil Rights Act of 2017, and coordinated by the National Park Service, the Network tells the stories of the people, places, and events of the U.S. civil rights movement through a collection of public and private elements.

Last updated: February 23, 2021