Inching towards Integration in Summerville, SC (1954 – 1970)

1970 Summerville Green Wave Basketball team

Note: Despite the academic-sounding title, I’m no historian, so the following is merely a personal remembrance of events that happened a half-century ago. Here’s a link to more legitimate article on Black history in Summerville. 

Like virtually every community in the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s, my hometown Summerville, South Carolina, was segregated. Black people could not patronize the town’s movie theater (when it was intermittently open), the bowling alley, restaurants, or laundromats. Even doctors’ waiting rooms were divided into “white” and “colored” sections, the way vets separate cats and dogs.  

Because the schools were “separate but equal,”[1] the only Black children I ever encountered socially were the children of domestics my mother and grandmother occasionally employed.[2] Racism was deeply embedded in my upbringing. Although my parents were kind to Black people – we actually once sheltered a Black boy in our house to protect him from abuse – my parents considered the African American race inferior.[3]

I remember one Saturday when our maid[4] Alice worked, she brought along her daughter Sallie who asked if she could watch Jump Time, a locally produced African American dance show modeled on American Bandstand. Jump Time wasn’t something we would have tuned into ourselves, but my brother David and I acquiesced, foregoing whatever Saturday TV fare we were accustomed to viewing at 1pm. After that visit, I made a point of watching Jump Time when I happened to be home watching TV at that hour. We’re talking the golden age of R&B, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin. And the dancers! They allowed the beat to lead the way, gracefully swaying and juking, turning what to me was a staid social convention into something primal and thrilling.

One small step.

Of course, Brown versus Board of Education had come down years before in 1954, so Summerville Schools were not in compliance with the laws of the land in 1957 when I first placed my hand over my heart and recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Mrs. Wiggins’s first grade class. At some point – I can’t remember the year – as a sort of compromise, the powers-that-were selected a few African Americans to integrate Summerville Elementary School. I suspect these students were chosen not only for their academic talent, but also for their Jackie-Robinson-like ability to withstand a certain amount of bigoted abuse. From my immature perspective, the transition seemed to go smoothly, or at least there was not that public spectacle of abuse that had occurred in Little Rock where Whites stalked Black children, screaming at them as they were escorted to school on the first day of integration. 

Little Rock Seven

After passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, our public parks became integrated, and my first co-equal social interactions with students from the Black high school, Alston High, began at the Laurel Street basketball courts. In the late ‘60s, a few of my friends and I joined the Blacks there playing on Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes after school. These Summerville High kids included Gordon Wilson, Tim Miskel, and a few transplants from the North whose names have faded from the fraying annals of my memory.

Players would choose a three-man team to challenge whoever had won the last game, and we played by African American rules. In my subdivision, Twin Oaks, you maneuvered  the ball to back court after a defensive rebound, but here you could tip in an opponent’s missed basket and receive a point. We counted by ones, and eleven was the winning score, though you had to win by two. I don’t recall even an iota of racial tension. 

One glorious sunny afternoon Richard Blalock, Gordon Wilson, and I won three straight games.

Unfortunately, after our third triumph, Carl Whetsell, a Black Summerville High student in my English class, asked me if I knew that two players on the other teams were starters for the Alston Tigers. I passed the info along to Richard and Gordon.  The next time we faced them, we immediately choked, never to beat them again, which suggests, to flip the cliché, that what you do know can hurt you. Anyway, we became friendly with some of our Black competitors, especially with a couple of kids known as Mookie and Tubby.

Once the high school was fully integrated in the academic year 1969-1970, knowing the Laurel Street Alston crew made the transition meaningful for me, and Tubby and Mookie joined us once at a party at Adam Jacobs’s apartment Boone’s Farm from person to person. Our parents would not have been pleased.

A much bigger step.

That year, the integrated basketball team, led by Summerville High’s Sherwood Miler and former Alston High’s George Cooper, made it to the State Finals. Although we lost that game, the very worst of the bad ol’ days of segregation were behind us. Athletics helped enormously in bringing the two races together in our sports-crazed town. People like to win, and when it comes to football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, and track, fielding an all-white team is a disadvantage. 

Black athletes like Harry Blake and Eddie Felder became local heroes in those days, though that is not to say that even they escaped the racial bigotry so entrenched in society, in both the North and the South. Most people weren’t then – and aren’t now – colorblind. The original sin of slavery continues to darken our days as the events of the year 2020 have demonstrated. Nevertheless, compared to many other communities in across the country, Summerville’s integration was, thank goodness, relatively peaceful.


[1] As I typed that phrase, my tongue was lodged firmly in my cheek.

[2] The fact that we were lower middle class suggests how low wages must have been. Of course, no social security taxes were involved. 

[3] This act of mercy was not popular with our neighbors. I was mocked at the bus stop for having a [racial expletive] as a brother. 

[4] I realize the word “maid” has fallen into disfavor, but it doesn’t designate a race and actually sounds better to me than “female domestic servant” or the euphemistic “helper.”  Imagine if Molly Maids changed its name to Dolly Domestic Servants or Molly Domestic Helpers.