Despite testy gray clouds and pollen blowing about on gusty winds, I rode my bike way up King Street during my lunch break today, because I wanted to be there. I wanted to see them—the now grown women who were innocent young third graders decked in nice Sunday school dresses and little bobby socks that day back in 1963, the year I was born, when they bravely walked up the stairs into James Simons Elementary School in downtown Charleston. They were the first black children to enter a South Carolina public school.
Today, the Preservation Society erected a lovely historical marker heralding that landmark moment and celebrating the 50th anniversary of desegregation. We could barely hear the remarks because the venerable old school building on the corner of King and Moultrie Streets is under construction—being retrofitted for earthquake safety and bringing it up to date for 21st century education. But I couldn't help but feel being buffeted about by something other than the wind. The irony of it all was blowing squarely in my face. Here were these remarkable, brave little girls, now beautiful, strong, middle-aged women, coming back to mark the occasion and to tell those gathered that "we cannot afford to let our schools go backwards," even as the construction workers were drilling, sawing, and hammering away, in the name of progress, in the background. Here we were on the site where these four black children dared step inside a school of 600 white students, declaring their right, and everyone's right, to a fair and equitable education, while today, James Simons Elementary School has an enrollment of 280—only four of those are white students. Ninety percent of the James Simons student body receives free or reduced lunch—an indicator of economic disparity.
As DIG SOUTH kicks off its fabulous weekend showcase of all things progressive and hip in Charleston's expanding knowledge economy, let us remember that we've got more digging to do to level the knowledge playing field for our students. We mark the 50th anniversary of desegregation with a re-segregation—the peninsula's public schools are almost exclusively African American schools today, and schools that are generally underperforming. I'm digging that things are cool and exciting in the local tech sector. I'm not digging that we've got lots more work to do to make the brave steps those young girls took in 1963 go far enough.