Monday, November 08, 2010

The Face of Segregation

Most people need a connection to the past in order to appreciate the story it has to tell. Often my role when speaking to the public is to foster that connection in people. One of my great professional joys is to watch a person's reaction to a photo or artifact transform as that connection is formed.

Among photos, which are often my focus at work, the ones that capture my attention the most are usually images of familiar places. My own connection to an old photo often comes from knowing the place where a photo was made, even if the image I see differs vastly from the place as it exists now, or as I personally remember it. That's the connection for me: a shared place, usually anyway.

Something different happened recently when I was processing some photos donated by School District Seven. Most of the photos came with clear identifications because many of them had been published in a 1982 history of the district. Others had penciled notes, or were clearly identifiable. Only a few required some historical sleuthing, and one became all the more poignant as I tried harder and harder to uncover the circumstances of the photo.

The fact that Spartanburg was so late to fully desegregate its schools, which happened finally in the fall of 1970, should not go unnoticed. And despite the dubiously intended "separate but equal" ruling, on the administrative level, African-American teachers, students, schools, and materials were always secondary to their white counterparts. That disparity was highlighted in this 1964 photo of a retiring black schoolteacher receiving a certificate of recognition for her years of service from superintendent J. G. McCracken. Study her expression for a minute.

Mrs. Larcie Smith Browning with Dr. J. G. McCracken, May 28, 1964

She seems emotionally overwhelmed. Mixed up in her expression are uncomfortable humility, intense gratitude, and the restraint of someone who knows to stay in the place society has left for her. If her stifled tears and nervous smile weren't emotionally powerful enough, there's the white dress, white gloves, and white powder she has used to dress up for one of the biggest occassions of her adult life.

Growing up at the turn of the century, she would have come of age in one of the worst periods for African-Americans in South Carolina. The generation in power at that time went to great efforts to prevent the chaotic social upheaval that had marred their own youths during Reconstruction by constraining African-American progress. New voting rules legally disenfranchised blacks and the reinvention of the KKK ensured that African-Americans stayed in their white-defined place in society.

That sense of a "proper place," especially in regards to interacting with whites, defines this photo for me. As a black woman employed by this man, she very clearly has a subservient role to him. Yet, this photo documents a ceremony given in her honor. She seems to struggle with that place of honor while maintaining her "proper place," and I wonder if that is what her expression (and the awkward physical space between them) is all about. Combine that with all the memories of working for decades as a teacher in her struggling community and it's certainly an overwhelming experience.

This photo didn't come with any label and it took some effort to find her name. There was a newspaper article in May of 1964 that covered and photographed the retiring of three white teachers with a note in the final paragraph that a similar ceremony would be held a few days later for two negro teachers. As might be expected, no article or photo appeared in the newspaper for that event. I later found an older photo of teachers at Highland Elementary that included one of the retiring teachers, Mrs. Larcie Browning, the woman shown above. That provided the link to clarify her identity, and that's how I'm able to say who she was and what was happening in her life on May 28, 1964.


Dr. Walker said...

Fascinating post, Brad!!!!!

Robert said...

Interesting perspective from a picture in time. As an SHS '71 grad, the first year of full racial mix, it helped me remember my senior English teacher who had just arrived from Carver. Although the experiences of the year were like a whirlwind, Lola Taggart stands out as a bright spot of "the year of change". Soft spoken, yet commanding in her knowledge, she helped many of us learn life lessons we might not have experienced otherwise ... a different kind of coming of age. And why do I remember the name and the experience 40 years later-because of the difference one life made in a changing world.