“I Expect I’ll Get a Plaque”

Black and white photo of group of people sitting in a circle outside

Highlander Center

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.

South Carolina legislators were angered and shocked with some regularity in the early 1950s by court decisions against segregated facilities and by the increased demands of blacks for equality. The Supreme Court's decision on what the legislators called Black Monday, May 17, 1954, was the final blow. So offended were they that in assembly they declared membership in the National • Association for the Advancement of Colored People a criminal act sufficient to cause dismissal as a public school teacher. 

Similar moves were not uncommon in other Southern states. Also in 1955, legislators in Georgia went so far as to prepare bills that would have abolished the offensive U.S. Supreme Court and would have removed all Negroes from the state. In some contexts of the time, the South Carolina lawmakers may have seemed restrained. They did not, of course, seem restrained to those teachers caught in the net of their edicts. 

In 1956, almost as soon as the ink was dry affirming the statute, 11 black teachers known to be members of the NAACP in Charleston and 31 in Clarendon County were fired. One of them, Septima Poinsette Clark, has since become a person of mythic reputation. Her own vigor, intelligence and gumption notwithstanding, she gained that reknown in no small part because of the huff South Carolina's parliamentarians got themselves into over the Brown decision. 

Septima Clark's heresy began in innocence when, at 18, she boarded a launch in her native Charleston for Johns Island, a moss-draped, isolated place then in 1916. Her first class consisted of 132 students, squeezed into a two-room, log cabin-style schoolhouse. Clark, a graduate of Charleston's Avery Normal Institute, taught one half the students, the older ones, in one room, while an associate her own age taught the younger ones in the other. The building had a chimney built in the center with a fireplace opening into each room. Students warmed their lunches - usually oysters and grits brought in soup tans - in front of the fireplace. 

The girls among Clark's students - scholars they were then called - had to gather dried brush or grass for kindling; the boys brought in wood, usually from trees just chopped. "By the time you could get that green wood burning," Clark remembered recently, "it was about time to go home." On days when dried wood was found, the fireplace provided more than enough heat ... for the students up front. Students in the back of the room remained cold throughout the day. "I never had been so cold in all my life," she said. "My feet got so cold they were swollen and red, 'chiddling' they called it." 

Even in the coldest weather, either the windows or door had to be left open for light. Windows were covered only with wooden shutters; when closed against the wind, they offered no light at all. "The windows to the side where the wind wasn't blowing were left open. That's how they could see," she recalled. 

Classroom walls were covered with paper bags, provided by a Charleston dry-cleaning establishment. The bags provided enough space "to write pretty little stories about 'We went down the road and the trees are beginning to turn and their colors are green and red and yellow' or whatever they were, or 'We plant cotton and pick cotton and take our money from the crop and buy our candy.'" Kneeling on the floor with their paper placed on backless benches, students copied the sentences. Other lessons were copied from the blackboard: a wall painted flat black. Her students, Clark wrote in her 1962 autobiography Echo In My Soul, ranged in age 

from the beginning tots to boys and girls in the eighth grade - when they got a chance to come . ... Some Johns Island children walked eight or ten miles a day to attend school. And while the crops were being harvested, as a rule only the children too young to work in the fields were allowed to come to school. On rainy days when no work could be done in the fields we would have a large attendance. But if by noon the sun came out, the plantation overseer would ride up to school call for the tenants' children. 

For their efforts, Clark and her fellow teacher were paid $25 a month. Because she was rated as a principal, Clark received an extra $5. White teachers with the same qualifications received $85 a month, and taught under far different conditions. "The three white teachers in our community had from three to 18 pupils each." Their schoolhouse was well lit, heated, and well equipped. 

Clark was able to gain all of her board and lodging for $8 a month. “I allowed myself $2 spending money; the $20 I sent home. And usually with the $2, or most of it, I bought meat and poultry that I sent home on the returning launch." 

For $8, Clark shared an attic room in the home of Rev. J.J. Jenkins and his family. The room had no heat, but a chimney ran through it, providing some warmth. She bathed in a tin tub in front of the fire downstairs, after the family members had gone to bed. When it rained, the Jenkinses sometimes drove Clark to school. Most days she walked the three-mile round trip. 

Clark taught on Johns Island from 1906 to 1919 and again in 1926 until 1929. She also taught in Hickory and Mars Hill, North Carolina, and Charleston, McClellanville and Columbia, South Carolina. She took courses in North and South Carolina colleges, eventually earning her master's. And she joined the NAACP. 

Clark first heard of the organization in early 1917 when a Presbyterian gathering brought a number of preachers to Johns Island. Many were members. They described the group's importance, and what it might do for an island like Johns. ("We had a sheriff who shot people down for no good reason, so we needed their help.") She quickly joined the Charleston chapter and worked on a number of issues, including gathering signatures to support the notion of black women teaching in the black public schools. In 1920, she explained, white school leaders decreed that only mulattoes unable to find work as domestics wou Id teach black children in Charleston. Black parents, they claimed, would not accept black Septima Clark, second from left, at Highlander Center in Monteagle, Tennessee. teachers, and whites were no longer allowed to teach blacks. Clark worked on the signature drive and when the school leaders were faced with thousands of signatures, they relented. Black women began to fill the teaching slots. In Columbia, Clark worked with the NAACP to equalize black and white teacher salaries. Because of these efforts, Clark's salary tripled to $175 a month when the law was changed in 1942. By 194 7 it had reached almost $450. 

When Septima Clark was fired by the state in 1956, school officials did not point to the work she had done with the NAACP, but simply to the fact that she admitted being a member. Clark and the other teachers from Charleston and Clarendon Counties immediately contacted the NAACP, which took their case to court. In the midst of the trial, Clark explained, "The judge announced, 'We don't know all of the facts, and we'll dismiss this case for another month, and then the lawyers can bring us in new briefs.' The next day the legislature was called in," and changed the wording of the law so it simply required that teachers "list their affiliations." 

Some of the fired teachers were rehired. Clark was not. She alone of the group had enough experience to be eligible to receive an annual pension of $3,600. She got nothing. She only received the $1,500 she had invested in the retirement fund with no interest. She wrote the NAACP for help, but "we' never heard any more; we never went back in. And I filled out a questionnaire for Thurgood Marshall, who was at the national office, and evidently it caught dust; I never heard any more from him." 

Much more was heard from Septima Clark, however. She turned down several offers for good-paying teaching jobs in New York, deciding instead to stay in the South and work with the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. There Myles Horton and others had developed an adult literacy program they called the Citizenship Schools. The idea was to teach disfranchised blacks how to read and write so they could register to vote. As director of the program, Clark crisscrossed the South setting up schools in beauty parlors, country stores and private homes. 

By 1960, with increasing numbers of blacks successfully passing the stern registration tests, the program became a focus of Southern political leaders' fears. Tennessee officials, at the behest of politicians from Georgia and Arkansas, made their first moves to close Highlander that year. Clark and Horton, fearing the state might succeed, arranged with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his aide, the Reverend Andrew Young, who had previously worked with Clark at Highlander, to adopt the literacy program as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's own, thus ensuring its survival. (Highlander was closed in Monteagle, 76 reopened in Knoxville, Tennessee, and later moved to New Market, Tennessee, where it is located at present.) 

Clark continued the Citizenship Schools, which eventually prepared over 140,000 adults for the registration tests. Much of the celebrity status she enjoys today derives from the importance of the Citizenship Schools and her association with Dr. King. She was one of the few women on the SCLC board until she retired in 1970. "Ralph Abernathy demanded most every meeting, 'Why is Septima Clark on the board of directors?' And Dr. King would say, 'Because she sets up the programs that allowed us to expand into 11 Southern states and she deserves to be on our board.'" She smiled at the memory, and nodded as she spoke. 

After she returned to Charleston, the awards and commendations began to appear. Dozens of magazines and newspaper articles have been written about her work. In 1975, she was elected to a seat on the same board of education which years before had fired her, becoming the third woman and first black woman ever to sit on the Charleston County School Board. That same year, the National Education Association gave her that organization's highest award, the H. Council Trenholm Humanitarian Award. 

Whenever she was honored, interviewed or asked to speak, she always mentioned how she'd lost her pension when she was fired. South Carolina's political leadership began feeling the heat of her remarks. In 1976, the state issued her a check for $3,600, the sum she was entitled to annually. The governor apologized to her for the fact that she'd been unfairly fired. And every year since, Clark has received a pension check for $3,600. But she has never been paid her pension for the years between 1956 and 1976; nor has she been paid the four percent interest she was promised when she contributed $1,500 to the retirement fund. 

Today, at 80, having gotten poetic justice plus a measure of economic retribution, Clark never fails to mention what she believes the state owes her. Bud Ferillo,  Jr., director of Research and Personnel for South Carolina, was the the last official to write her back in July, 197 . “As to the matter of back pay,” he said, “the  matter has not been resolved in your favor as of this time but it remains under the consideration of officials here." 

On February 23, 1979, Septima Clark received the Living Legacy Award from President Jimmy Carter. "I expect I’ll get a plaque,” she said shortly before she left for the presentation at the White House. “I’ve got lots of plaques now. It’d be nice to get some money, too."