By Michael Staton
Photography from the Joseph A. De Laine papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C. & Roy Jones
The lifelong educator behind Call Me MISTER has devoted years to chronicling South Carolina’s part in the U.S. civil rights movement
When Call Me MISTER® was created more than 20 years ago to increase the pool of Black male educators in the teaching profession, Roy Jones, the program’s executive director, expected most of his work to take place in classrooms. He never thought that decades later he’d be spending so much time visiting crumbling homes, derelict former schools or churches that felt untouched by time.
But Jones has learned that in order to get to the bottom of history, a person sometimes has to go out and find it. Part of the reason Jones has succeeded as the head of Call Me MISTER is his ability to tie almost every aspect of the nationally recognized program to history.
Call Me MISTER, which has expanded to nearly 30 other institutions across the country, is housed in the Clemson University College of Education and provides tuition assistance and academic support to its cohorts of students. Just as important is the way the program encourages MISTERs to explore and know their own story in order to become truly effective educators.
To Jones, knowledge of self and history may be the most vital teaching tools for the educators he’s devoted his life to preparing. This belief is why he has spent more of his time of late enriching the MISTER mission by digging up, learning from and chronicling the past — specifically, the role South Carolina played in desegregating the nation’s public schools and the civil rights activists responsible.
Call Me MISTER: Why Clemson? from Clemson University on Vimeo.
Levi Pearson, with the assistance of Rev. Joseph De Laine, above, filed a lawsuit against the Clarendon County School District to secure a school bus for Black children to prevent his children from walking 9 miles to school each day. The lawsuit was dismissed on a technicality.
Heading Down the Path
During one particularly fruitful trip to Summerton, South Carolina, Jones found himself on a dirt road blocked by a fallen tree. That road led to the abandoned Elliott plantation, formerly owned by a family of slave owners whose descendants would go on to fight to keep schools segregated.
Vaulting over said tree — in a suit and tie, no less, as this was an unexpected detour on his visit — didn’t give Jones pause as much as the possibility of venomous reptiles did.
“I am, let’s say, averse to snakes,” Jones says, his smile giving away the understatement. “So, I took a deep breath, I prayed and I headed down the path.”
Shattered windows and warped, splintered wooden steps framed the home’s front door, but to Jones, the surrounding landscape was just as intriguing. He saw a trench dug during the Civil War along the road leading to the former Elliott home. The story goes that the plantation owners had their enslaved workers dig the trench and then armed them to defend the home against Union troops that meant to burn it to the ground. The Union soldiers ended up being Black infantrymen, and when both sides recognized the situation, the battle was averted.
Jones wasn’t in Summerton to study Civil War history but rather to get to the bottom of a conflict that would occur almost 100 years later in U.S. courtrooms.
Briggs v. Elliott (the defendant was a descendant of the same family that owned the plantation) originated in the town, and it was the first of five cases on the docket with the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Many don’t realize that this South Carolina case predated Brown v. Board of Education by more than two years.
This trip and many others led to a MISTER leadership seminar in 2018 that featured descendants of people on both sides of the fight for desegregation appearing on one stage for peaceful reflection, all in service to a MISTER audience eager to absorb the past in order to effectively teach it in the present.
That session was a historic achievement for Clemson University and Call Me MISTER, but Jones didn’t stop there.
He would continue meeting with historians who could shed light on events that changed our nation, events that prove the pivotal role South Carolina played in civil rights history. He would partner with others at Clemson to preserve these materials for posterity and create an annual series designed to illuminate a corner of history that had dimmed nearly to the point of total darkness.
“This isn’t just the MISTERs’ story; it’s everyone’s story. But MISTERs in particular need to embrace it and understand it so that they can take it further and be about the business of changing lives,” Jones says. “All of this effort is to ensure that this history isn’t just retained but put to use, because a history unknown is a history repeated.”
Reverdy Well, below, senior class president at Scott’s Branch High School, brings his concerns over the treatment of students at the school by its principal to De Laine and other parents in the community. De Laine was instrumental in recruiting the parent plaintiffs (including Harold Briggs) and enlisting the help of the NAACP.
A tsunami doesn’t happen out of nowhere; these waves occur because of an earthquake or volcanic eruption. The U.S. civil rights movement was a wave of change that was precipitated by numerous hardships and tragic events, many of which took place in South Carolina.
In 1946, white police officers in Aiken, South Carolina, blinded Isaac Woodard Jr., a decorated Black World War II veteran and South Carolina native. The officers were acquitted, which sparked outrage a full decade before Martin Luther King Jr. rose to prominence as a civil rights leader. The removal of Sarah Mae Flemming Brown from a bus in Columbia, South Carolina, occurred 17 months before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat.
A 1947 request by Clarendon County officials to provide bus transportation to Black students led to the 1949 Briggs v. Elliott case, which preceded all the cases that combined to form Brown v. Board of Education. No one event or group of people or place or case started the civil rights movement, and that landmark Supreme Court case didn’t occur in a vacuum.
However, when events are plotted on a timeline in this way, South Carolina begins to look less like a footnote and more like an early and major player in the civil rights movement.
This was not lost on Cecil J. Williams, an award-winning photographer who documented the civil rights movement in South Carolina. The events that he witnessed from behind a camera have become increasingly lost to time — watered down by history books concerned with brevity or avoiding shame and embarrassment.
“Our state played a major role — some would say was the catalyst — for the civil rights movement,” Williams says. “I saw it happening and just felt called at the time to document and save as much as I could.”
For decades, Williams retained all of his own photography but also collected any artifacts he could in the hopes of starting a museum; in 2019, he opened the doors of the 3,500-square-foot Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum located in Orangeburg.
The museum brings this part of state history to life through photography, correspondence and family heirlooms from individuals directly involved in civil rights history. The crown jewel is the Briggs family Bible, a massive book that was donated by Nathaniel Briggs and Catherine Eliza Briggs Smith, son and daughter of Harry Briggs Sr., the original petitioner in the Briggs v. Elliott case. In the next room are shell casings from the Orangeburg Massacre, the 1968 shooting of protestors by highway patrol officers on the South Carolina State University campus, which took place minutes from where Williams’ museum stands today.
After partnering with Williams, Jones pulled in Clemson University Libraries to aid in preserving and archiving the museum’s collections. Clemson Libraries is in the process of developing an online searchable database of the historical resources related to the South Carolina civil rights movement and will host all instructional materials.
Call Me MISTER will help develop those materials and offer professional development summer sessions for educators interested in delivering instruction across a variety of focus areas. The museum will share its physical location with Clemson for presentations, workshops, and seminars and participate in any mutually beneficial grant opportunities with MISTER.
Williams was one of the many journalists to document Harvey Gantt’s arrival as the first Black student admitted to Clemson University in 1963. He says Clemson has made serious strides since then to make inclusion and equity a priority in its mission:
“The outreach and programs that Clemson brings to South Carolina make our state shine nationally. I was there when Clemson achieved peaceful integration with dignity, which contrasted with much of the violence that occurred in other places. That speaks to Clemson, its leadership at the time and [its] entire philosophy. I can see that this philosophy hasn’t changed since then.”
A plot to assault or kill De Laine fails in December 1949. Lawsuits for slander and further acts of violence against De Laine, including arson and attacks on his home, continue over the next six years despite De Laine moving to different parts of the state.
The network of interstates and highways between the Upstate and the Lowcountry has become a second home to Jones and Mark Joseph, program coordinator for Call Me MISTER. Their interviews with individuals involved in the fight for desegregation are a major part of the material being archived at Clemson, and much of the footage of these oral histories was shown at Clemson’s inaugural Joseph and Mattie De Laine Lecture Series in October.
Joseph De Laine was born in Manning, South Carolina, and became pastor for a circuit of AME churches in Clarendon County and principal of the Liberty Hill School. He encouraged a group of citizens, including Levi Pearson and Harry Briggs (for whom the Briggs v. Elliott suit is named), to file the original suit in 1948 after being denied transportation for Black children who walked 9 miles to schools designated for them.
De Laine and his wife, Mattie, worked with then-chief legal counsel to the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice.
“Who knows what would have happened if Joseph and Mattie De Laine weren’t there in Summerton, pushing and leading the way,” Jones says, “but they paid for it. Their family was threatened with violence, their house was burned down by Klansmen and they were eventually run out of the state.”
Jones and Joseph heard these stories directly from De Laine’s two surviving children, Joseph Jr. and Ophelia. The night their father returned gunfire during a 1955 attack on their home. The moment they learned the attackers were a mix of police officers and Klansmen. The day their father had to escape to New York.
Jones and Joseph dug deeper, learning of Reverdy Wells, a teenager whose frustration with the conditions for Black students at Scott’s Branch High School motivated him to organize a group of fellow students to present their concerns to De Laine and a group of parents and citizens who would go on to create the original petition.
Wells’ story proved to Jones and Joseph that, more often than not, drivers of change are our youth, something Jones feels MISTERs should recognize as they themselves are tasked with inspiring kids in schools across the nation.
Joseph compares his experiences on the road to how clarifying it was for him to finally dig into the details of the Brown v. Board of Education case upon its 50th anniversary. That was 2004, when Joseph was completing college as a MISTER at Claflin University.
“Fifteen years after I learned about school desegregation, I was a Black man working in education who was just learning about the Briggs case,” Joseph says. “If Dr. Jones and I don’t know about it and if most of the people living in the towns where these events happened don’t know about it, why should I expect the average South Carolinian to know about it?”
Jones and Joseph established an annual event along with a concrete way of archiving materials that were fast degrading. They wanted Clemson to become the “go-to place” for knowledge on the subject, and they set about naming scholarships for Joseph De Laine, Mattie De Laine and Reverdy Wells that would assist students from Clarendon and Fairfield counties who seek careers in education.
For Jones and Joseph, this work is bigger than MISTER or even the field of education. They want this history consumed by anyone and everyone. As Jones says: Any “thinking person” can gain insight and make connections to their own day-to-day lives.
“We’re not as far removed from those times as we think,” Jones says. “When integration did finally happen, the system tightened up on its qualifications, and Black teachers lost their jobs and couldn’t requalify. That’s just one example. These lessons are for everyone, but they are especially there to influence those who have influence: teachers, parents, policymakers and leaders.”
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