Beaufort schools move peacefully from segregation

By KATE CERVE  |  kcerve@beaufortgazette.com  |  843-706-8177

When the chairman of the county Board of Education recalls his experience as a student in Beaufort’s public schools, he paints a picture dramatically different from the educational system he presides over today.

Fred Washington Jr. began first grade in a segregated system in the 1950s and graduated from the all-black Robert Smalls High School as valedictorian in 1964.

He recalls classes in inferior facilities and a lack of essential school supplies. For instance, Washington’s physics classroom had only enough equipment for one lab experiment, so students had to watch others on film instead of experiencing them directly.

That’s a far cry from the quality of equipment in the Beaufort County School District today: Classrooms have interactive whiteboards and schools have sophisticated robotics equipment to reinforce physics concepts.

Nonetheless, Washington said the system he grew up in produced outstanding citizens and successful professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and teachers.

He and others who attended Beaufort’s segregated schools say they succeeded despite disadvantages because of a strong sense of community and the dedication of educators.

“There were always teachers that challenged you,” he said. “There were parents and people who emphasized and pushed education and learning. They did not let poverty or a lack of resources become an excuse.”

A MISSIONARY
MIND Many who attended Robert Smalls High School recall Winfred Kent Alston, who served as principal for nearly 25 years. Then-superintendent O.K. McDaniel hired Alston for $90 a month in 1939. He held the position until he died of cancer in 1962.

He is remembered for the high aspirations he had for his students and his efforts to bring world-class singers, athletes and others to the school to expose students to the world beyond Beaufort. Those celebrities included singer Marian Anderson and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis.

“He was always ambitious for his pupils,” McDaniel said a year before Alston died. “Even on his stationery he had the words printed ‘Robert Smalls High School, The Biggest Little School East of the Mississippi.’ Then he worked to keep it so.”

Faye Bostick, who graduated from Robert Smalls High in 1960, said Alston’s devotion was evident in his efforts to know all his students and to get to know their families, too.

“He’d stand at one end of the long hallway, see you at the other end and call your name out,” Bostick said. “If a problem came up, he came to your house. And then you’d know you were in trouble.”

Ervena Faulkner worked as an educator in about a half-dozen Beaufort schools for 32 years, beginning in 1959.

She began at the all-black St. Helena schools, where the tight-knit community made her feel a part of their family. She said teachers came to the job with a “missionary mind,” believing it their duty to provide children with whatever they needed, even if it meant paying for food or supplies out of their own pockets. It also meant they taught students character and life skills as well as their assigned subjects.

“You’ve got to come out of my class knowing the subject matter as well as knowing how to live in this world,” she said.

A FRESH START
In 1970, the era of segregated schools ended in Beaufort.

That year, teenagers from the all-black Robert Smalls and St. Helena high schools were bused to Beaufort High, which was so crowded it split the day into dual sessions. The Beaufort High red and white Tidal Waves became the Beaufort High green and white Eagles, taking the colors from all-black Robert Smalls and the mascot from the all-black St. Helena school.

Anne Christensen Pollitzer, a fifth-generation Beaufortonian, taught at Beaufort High when it was integrated. She said the school was about two-thirds black, after many white students fled to private schools set up in response to desegregation.

She recalls how black and white students dressed differently on the first day. Black students dressed formally, with many girls wearing pearls and stockings. Many white students came with the ragged, torn jeans fashionable at the time.

“It was quite a contrast,” she said.

The county managed a smooth school start with few incidents, but Pollitzer said officials were so afraid of problems they canceled many school activities, such as dances. Some students refused to use the restrooms, where they would be away from adult supervision.

Faulkner, who taught with Pollitzer at Beaufort High in the early 1970s, said teachers’ efforts to help students respect one another were a major reason integration was relatively peaceful in Beaufort.

She taught a biology class of black and white students who were learning together for the first time. She said helping them get along was as important as the subject matter, so on Fridays she would bring them doughnuts and hot chocolate and give them time to discuss events of the week.

“Everybody came in with whatever they had been taught at home about each race, and I had to wipe that slate clean and start fresh,” she said. “We had to dismiss those myths, and we did.”