COLUMBIA, S.C. — The three, stair-stepped brick buildings shrink from view behind newer structures on Pickens Street in the shadow of the USC water tower.
The last coat of paint peels from the wooden eaves, which are rotted in some spots.
Passers-by hardly could imagine Benson Elementary School earned a spot in the National Register of Historic Places last year. Those younger than 50 probably find it even hard to imagine the era of South Carolina history that Benson represents.
For the two generations of children who have attended integrated public schools, it's hard to fathom South Carolina spent $124 million on buildings and buses from 1951 through 1955 with the express purpose of preventing black and white kids from attending school together. Based on inflation, that would be $1.1 billion in 2010 dollars. The Legislature approved a 3-cent sales tax in 1951 to pay for the work, and the state borrowed against future sales tax revenue to build schools as quickly as possible.
Never before and never since has South Carolina spent as much money and energy improving public school facilities in such a short period as it did in the 1950s. But to call that period the golden era of school funding in the state would be using the wrong color. It was all about black and white.
BOON TO RURAL AREAS
Historians have taken to calling the program the "equalization schools" effort, a reference to the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson decision allowing "separate but equal" public facilities for black and whites.
With court threats to the Plessy ruling mounting nationwide and in South Carolina in 1951, Gov. Jimmy Byrnes pushed in his inaugural speech for the 3-cent sales tax to upgrade schools in poor areas.
"We should do it because it is right," Byrnes said. "For me, that is sufficient reason."
But later in the same speech, he touted the spending as a way to keep the races separate in schools. Later that year in a presentation at the S.C. Educational Association, Byrnes was even more strident.
"Of only one thing can we be certain. South Carolina will not now, nor for some years to come, mix white and colored children in our schools. ... If that is not possible, reluctantly we will abandon the public school system."
Despite its questionable goal, the equalization effort was a tremendous boon to the education of poor children in the state. By the end of 1954, the program had paid for 409 projects costing more than $80,000 - either new schools or major improvements to old schools.
Most of the new schools were in rural areas, sometimes replacing one-room wooden shacks. About 60 percent of the new buildings were "negro schools," according to a 1955 report by the state Education Finance Commission, which coordinated the effort. In the first four years, the program allowed local education leaders to close 824 inferior schools - 537 black schools and 287 white.
"Those in charge knew they weren't doing what they should be doing (before 1951)," said Val Littlefield, an associate professor of history at USC. In the early 1950s, "money was being spent on public schools at a rate much higher than ever before. It may have been for the wrong reasons, but the unintended consequence" was improvement in the education of African-American and poor white children.
Before that period, South Carolina's public education system was class-based, Littlefield said. The privileged upper class had good schools. The masses got just enough education to work in the fields or factories.
Littlefield described the attitude of state leaders to the poor: "They were worker bees, and they didn't need that highfalutin education."
But when parents in Clarendon County filed suit in 1947 against the local school board for not providing buses for black children, the tide of change began. The "equalization schools' program was an attempt to hold back that tide.
In addition to schools, the equalization program paid for new buses. The state's school bus fleet went from 142,000 to 241,000 in three years. More than half of the buses were for black schools.
"We are doing in a few years what our fathers and grandfathers should have done during the past 75 years," Byrnes said in the Education Finance Commission's 1955 report entitled "Educational Revolution: A Report of Progress in South Carolina."
He noted that more than 60 percent of the $124 million spent in four years had gone to black schools. "Their facilities will be substantially equal to those for white pupils," Byrnes said.
Fourth-grader Alexzena Irving Furgess didn't have the perspective to judge equality in schools in 1954. But she knew how good it felt to walk the halls at the new Wheeler Hill Elementary School, which replaced the old Celia Saxon School on the edge of the USC campus.
"There was a sense of pride that everybody at Wheeler Hill felt at the time," Irving Furgess said. "It was the sense of having something of our own. We inherited Saxon," which had once been a school for white children.
The lower of the three tiers housed first and second grades. The second tier was third and fourth grades, and the upper tier fifth and sixth grades. They were attached on one end by an expansive hall that also led to an auditorium and the school administrative offices.
"I remember finally having an auditorium - they called it a cafetorium - where all the students could meet at one time," Irving Furgess said. "We had to gather outside to do that at Saxon."
Wheeler Hill Elementary was renamed Benson Elementary in 1958 after longtime teacher Florence Corrine Benson. Along with neighboring Booker T. Washington High School, Benson was the heart of the community, which has since been pushed aside by the growth of the USC campus.
The Benson school "was a big improvement over Saxon," said Stonewall Richburg, who served as principal at Benson in the late 1950s. "It accommodated so much more. And it had such community support. You couldn't have had a better school."
As USC bought property in the Wheeler Hill area, the elementary school population fell. Benson's life as a school ended in 1975, but USC bought the building, made minor renovations and began using it for offices a few years later. It currently is home to some public safety staffers and the Center For Child and Family Studies.
In 2008, USC's long-term construction plan called for tearing down Benson at an expected price tag of $4.5 million. But many of the projects on that construction list have been stalled by the economy. USC officials now say they have no short-term plans to raze Benson.
The buildings earned a spot in the National Register as part of a multiple property listing for the equalization schools in S.C. Those schools "represent the intersection of modern, national architectural trends and the postwar baby boom with South Carolina's fight to maintain racially segregated public schools," according to the National Register application prepared by Rebekah Dobrasko at the State Historic Preservation Office.
Most of the schools built with state funds from 1951-1960 could be added to the National Register, as long as they're still standing and haven't had major renovations. Wright Elementary in Spartanburg, Dennis High School in Bishopville and Benson are among those already in the National Register.
Dobrasko has had trouble finding a complete list of equalization schools. The Education Finance Commission records were spotty after its thorough 1955 report.
Dobrasko has compiled a partial list of the equalization schools online at scequalization.schools.officelive.com/default.aspx. Some of the Richland County schools built in that period included Anna Boyd Elementary (for blacks) and St. Andrews Elementary (for whites).
Many legislators and local school leaders balked at approving the equalization program unless the funds also could be used for white schools. After the first four years, more of the money was used for white schools than black. The education committee accounting of the entire program in 1963 indicated the state spent $214 million in the decade-long building spree, and about 54 percent was on white schools.
After the U.S. Supreme Court shot down the "separate but equal" provisions with the Brown v. Board decision in 1954, South Carolina still fought to keep schools segregated. The first 11 black children attended previously all-white schools in Charleston County in 1963. By 1970, schools throughout the state were integrated, with many white children ending up in former black equalization schools, and vice versa.
Forty years later, young people are stunned to learn how hard state leaders worked to avoid integration.
"As a history major, I had an idea of the lengths that people were willing to go to preserve inequality and separation in public schools," said Paige Fennell, a USC graduate student from Columbia who took Littlefield's history of education class last year. "One always has the belief that things of that nature do not impact you or only occur in cities far removed from the places we call home. ...
"This is an impossible concept for people of my generation to imagine, but for those who came before us, it was a reality. ... Sadly this is something that the state continues to struggle with today."
In recent years, schools in the poorest areas of the state have suffered because funding formulas put much of the burden for school construction on local property taxes. The long-running Corridor of Shame lawsuit shined a light on those inequalities.
Statewide, many of the schools on the 1950s equalization list are still in use. Some have been torn down. Littlefield hopes some of the schools, possibly even Benson, could be transformed into living memorials of an important era in the state's history.
"If something isn't there physically for us to see and talk about, we lose that documentation," Littlefield said. "It's our responsibility to talk about what was here before."