Liberty Hill AME Church – Summerton, South Carolina
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Liberty Hill AME Church in Summerton was founded in 1867, four years after Emancipation and two years after the close of the Civil War. Members originally met in a bush arbor and later a shed. The first formal sanctuary built on this site was constructed after Thomas and Margaret Briggs sold four areas of land to church trustees for $1, though the date is unclear. The current church – New Liberty Hill, as parishioners call it – was completed in 1905 as a wood-frame building. Brick veneer was added in the 1940s.
Around this time, parents began meeting at Liberty Hill to discuss the inequities that confronted their children at school. In Clarendon County, there were 2,800 black students and only 300 white students. Despite this, the school board supplied 33 buses for white children and none for black children. Because of this, African-American children were forced to walk to and from class. Levi Pearson’s farm was located nine miles from Scott Branch, the only black high school in Summerton. He petitioned the school board to provide a bus for black children. The superindentent for Clarnedon County, R.W. Elliott, denied his request, stating that black families did not pay enough in taxes to cover the expenditure and it would be unfair to make white families pay the remainder.
The meetings at Liberty Hill’s were led by its minster, the Reverend E.E. Richburg. Other families faced similar journeys, and they first responded to Elliott’s rejection by banding together to buy their own bus. They raised $900 and purchased a used bus, but it broke regularly, and gas created an ongoing expensive.
Another local minister (and school principal), the Reverend Joseph Albert DeLaine, joined with Civil Rights activist Modjeska Simkins of Columbia to create another petition asking the president of the local school board, R. W. Elliott, to provide a bus for their children. Elliott denied their request, stating that the black families did not pay enough in taxes to cover the expenditure, and that it would be unfair to make white families pay the remainder.
Today we sign petitions commonly, without fear of retribution. In the 1940s however, especially in the rural South, the black families who signed this petition accepted a potentially fatal risk. The first family to sign the petition was that of Harry and Eliza Briggs. Their son, eight-year-old Harry Briggs, Jr., wrote his name third on the list. In time, they would be joined by 18 other Clarendon County residents.
This simple petition evolved into the landmark case Briggs versus Elliott, the first of five cases tried jointly in the United States Supreme Court that would collectively become known as Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Though it was the first case filed, the justices decided to name the case Brown v. the Board of Education because they did not want it to be seen as Southern.
The case began in 1949 when Harry and Eliza Briggs of Summerton, along with more than 20 other plaintiffs – including the Briggs’ eight -year-old son, Harry Briggs, Jr. – signed a petition requesting a working school bus for students in the black community. The petition was organized by local black minister and teacher, the Reverend Joseph Albert DeLaine. School superintendent R.M. Elliott denied the request, and the NAACP helped develop a suit that extended beyond transportation to include education.
In 1950 Briggs versus Elliott was filed in Clarendon County. Thurgood Marshall – at the time a lawyer for the NAACP – argued that education for black students would remain inferior as long as students were segregated. In 1951 the three-judge panel ruled against the plaintiffs, with only Federal District Judge Julius Waties Waring dissenting. In his dissent, Judge Waring wrote that separate but equal laws were “per se inequality.” The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and Briggs versus Elliott was one of five cases that together became Brown versus Board of Education in 1952. A victory was handed to the plaintiffs on May 17, 1954.
While Briggs versus Elliott ultimately was a win for desegregation, the pioneers from Liberty Hill AME Church were greatly persecuted by their neighbors as a result. All of the plaintiffs were fired from their jobs, and others’ homes were burned in retribution. Many of them, including Harry and Eliza Briggs and their children, left the state. Harry and Eliza Briggs each received a Congressional Gold Medal posthumously in 2004 along with the Reverend Joseph Albert DeLaine. Harry Briggs, Jr. lived out his years in New York; he died on August 9, 2016. Below is a photo from 1964 featuring some of the plaintiffs of Brown versus Board of Education, including Harry Briggs, Jr., pictured second from right.
Today Liberty Hill remains an active AME church with a history rich in courage, suffering, victory, and faith. The Judicial Annex behind the United States Post Office in Charleston was renamed for Judge Waring on October 2, 2015.
Liberty Hill AME Church Info
Address: 2310 Liberty Hill Road, Summerton, SC 29148
GPS Coordinates: 33.591125,-80.389555
Liberty Hill AME Church Map
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