From Briggs to Boston, and Back

The following is a guest blog post by Zebulon Vance Miletsky, author of Before Busing: A History of Boston’s Long Black Freedom Struggle, available now wherever books and e-books are sold.

In Clarendon County, South Carolina, a farmer named Levi Pearson stood up with NAACP lawyer Harold Boulware to ask for a school bus. The Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine was a teacher and minister in Clarendon County, who organized two dozen black parents to combat racial segregation in the Public School System. In 1951, Jude J. Waites Waring declared that segregation must go. His ruling forced the state of South Carolina to give black children equal opportunity. 

Pearson sent his children to a black school in district 26. But because Pearson’s farm fell on a line between district 26 and district 5, and according to tax receipts presented to the Judge by the defendant, Pearson paid his property taxes in district 5 which is his legal residence, the Judge was able to dismiss the case. Moreover, the people who stood up with Levi Pearson, were punished. For his intransigence, Rev. DeLaine had his home burned to the ground. Harry and Eliza Briggs who would eventually bring suit, were fired from their jobs. Although this may have seemed at the time like an expedient way to get rid of the Pearson, it only strengthened their cause. 

When Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP became aware of their case, they organized—not only for buses—but for books, equal teachers’ pay, and equal school buildings. So, not wanting to repeat the mistake of building the case around a single man, which the court was able to dismiss, they sought to make it a group action, with  about 20 people as qualified plaintiffs. Joseph Delaine was forced to flee South Carolina as a fugitive. When the lynch mob came for him, De Laine fired back. He was smuggled out of South Carolina, where he settled in upstate New York, helping to found a church in Buffalo, the DeLaine-Waites AME Church, which is still in existence. Later, he would take over as Pastor at Calvary AME, in Brooklyn, NY. He never returned to his beloved South Carolina again.  

Segregation, though not formally legalized, was customary in the state until the mid-19th century. Conventionally held to be a Southern doctrine, it was in Boston where “separate but equal” and court-ordered segregation was born. J. A.  Delaine, a Clarendon County Pastor organized parents to fight “separate but equal” schooling in what became the 1947 Briggs v. Elliott case. 

In a seminar on the “Legacy of the Civil War and the Long Road to Civil Rights,” Ophelia De Laine Gona spoke about her father:

“Separate but equal started before ‘separate but equal.’ In 1850 or thereabouts, a man named Benjamin Roberts sued the city of Boston, asking for his child to go to a white school. He was a black man. In Boston, they had segregation at the time, and they were segregated because the black parents had requested that the schools be segregated. Their children were being harassed, so they asked for the schools to be integrated. And of course the city fathers said ‘no.’ So Mr. Roberts sued for his child to be accepted into the white school and the judge said no. Walking passed two white schools to get to her black school is really not too much to ask of this five-year-old child. So the case was dismissed. However in 1855, Massachusetts banned segregation in the entire state, and that was the first of the United States laws that prohibited school segregation.”

For Dr. Gona, there was a direct line to be drawn from the Roberts case and the struggle her father helped lead in Summerton, South Carolina, which led to the 1947 Briggs v. Elliott case and later Brown. For her, this earlier legal struggle is critical to understanding the longevity and continuity of the African American fight for equal education while it also repositions the linkages between Boston and the modern civil rights movement. Understanding Roberts, helps us rethink Boston as a central site in the trajectory of the civil rights movement, not only as a culmination of its efforts at the end but also right there from the very beginning

Zebulon Vance Miletsky is associate professor of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University.