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Segregation persists in town behind Brown

Fifty years after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, the student body at Scott's Branch Public High School in Summerton, S.C.,  is more than 99 percent black.  NBC News' Don Teague reports from Summerton on how segregation persists under a different guise.
/ Source: NBC News

Take a trip to Scott's Branch Public High School, and you'll be greeted by a student body that is more than 99 percent Black.

Fifty years after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, residents say schools in this school district are as segregated as ever.

For proof, they point to a nearby private school, Clarendon Hall, which is 90 percent white and admitted its first black student only four years ago.

"We're still separate, and we're not equal," said Scott's Branch parent Shirley Black. Her daughter Shaneena, a sophomore, is getting what Branch considers a "below average" education at the public school. 

Road to the Supreme Court
The road to integration began here in Clarendon County in the late 1940s with a fight for equality on the way to school.

Black children walked up to nine miles a day to school while whites rode a school bus. 

When Harry Briggs asked for a bus for his kids, school board Chairman RM Elliott refused and said, "We ain't got no money for no nigger children."

The denied request for buses was so insulting, it set off a legal battle.

"Briggs vs. Elliott" was the first of five cases that became "Brown vs. Board of Education.” The landmark decision promised to end school segregation, but at least here, it hasn’t.

Private school vs. public school
Kenneth Mance, the principal of Scott's Branch, the public high school in Clarendon County, said he’s not sure why white parents choose to send their children to private school, but he's stopped worrying about it.

"If they want to come and join us, that's well and good," said Mance. “If they don't, we're still going to have the best school we can have.”

Administrators at Clarendon Hall, the private school originally formed to circumvent integration, declined NBC's request for an interview.

But in a written statement administrators said that the academy is "open to students of all races."

White parents say the decision to send their children to the predominantly white school isn't about race but quality education.

At the private school the average SAT score is 978; at the public school it's just 763.

"It wouldn't bother me so much to send my child to a public school if I knew the education they were getting was better," said Clarendon Hall parent Duane Brown.

Different faces of segregation
Fifty years after the Supreme Court ruling, the legal battles over schools are still being fought in South Carolina.

Poor black schools like Scott’s Branch receive about a million fewer tax dollars than schools in the state's richer districts.

Last weekend parents protested the state Supreme Court's ruling that South Carolina need only fund a "minimally adequate" public education.

University of South Carolina Professor Lorin Anderson explained the different faces of segregation that he believes still persist.

"You can have one race in one program, typically white students in gifted and talented [programs], and another group of students in another program, typically disproportionate numbers of African-Americans in remedial programs.”

“So, there are many faces of segregation,” continued Anderson. “What you've seen over the years is that people try to find different ways of segregating, because total integration and equal opportunity is not something many people want to work toward, in my opinion." 

History has taught lessons
Still, students at Scott's Branch are learning about their grandparents who fought to end school segregation.

"I'm sure they would be very upset about it, because it seems like their efforts were in vain,” said Cindy Pershiam, a Scott’s Branch High School student.

That’s not entirely true, according to Joe Elliott, the grandson of RM Elliott, the man who refused those buses so long ago.

Joe Elliott served briefly as the headmaster of Clarendon Hall when the private school admitted its first black students in 2000. He believes his grandfather was wrong about the buses.

"I regret very much, I regret very sincerely the words that he used to deflect the request for a bus,” said Elliott, adding that his grandfather was a product of the Jim Crow era.

"I have great respect for the original petitioners. I have great respect for courage, and I think these original petitioners, these 20, are some of the bravest people in the world. I think they took us up another level in the democratization process of our country…. It was a victory for America. It was a victory for democracy. And for that we should demonstrate gratitude."

"There has to be healing, and this anniversary offers some promise for that," said Elliot.

Even as the road to equal education here seems as long as ever.