Slavery is gone, and so is Jim Crow, but the color line of inequality in Charleston has proven exceptionably durable since it was first drawn with the city’s founding nearly 350 yeas ago.
The poor and racially isolated Catfish Row of “Porgy and Bess” has real-life counterparts in today’s The Neck and other black neighborhoods elsewhere in metro Charleston. The downtown Memminger Elementary School, which was all-white in the days of state-decreed segregation, has been turned upside down into a virtually all-black school. Restaurants aren’t officially segregated anymore, but Patricia Lessane, Executive Director of the Avery Research Center, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, “I can walk into any number of Charleston’s finest restaurants and not see anyone who looks like me.”
How Charleston’s color line has survived even in the face the historical advances of the civil rights movement is told in the proud but often-painful chronicle of the long-delayed desegregation of Charleston public schools called “Somebody Had to Do It.” The director of the project is Millicent E. Brown, a retired college professor who, as a Charleston teenager, helped desegregate Rivers High School in September 1963 – nine years after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation.
More than 60 years after the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools and more than 50 years after desegregation finally came to Charleston's schools, at least 15 county schools are, essentially, segregated, with overwhelmingly black enrollments that continue to rank far behind white academic performance. Beyond Catfish Row will be looking at this predicament in future posts.