Harry and Eliza Briggs had never expected much from their existence beyond the simplicities hard-bought with the cotton crop he raised and her $1-an-hour maid’s wage in one of the motels where Northern tourists broke the journey to Florida. Theirs was the best of what Clarendon County, South Carolina, thought the appropriate ration for families of color in those days, and the Briggses might well have been content with that little if its condescensions had extended to schools fit for their children.

Scotts Bluff was the black high school. Its teachers were paid at half the rate prevailing for the white counterparts who would disdain to call them colleagues. Its pupils got their books by paying for the white school’s hand-me-downs. These were slights and humiliations so enduring and so long endured that their parents might never have gone to court if Clarendon County’s school superintendent had not refused their gentle entreaties for a school bus.

The only remedy left them was a suit, and Clarendon County was forced grudgingly to yield up the oldest vehicle in its motor pool. By then its citizens of color were roused to try for more. The NAACP incorporated their complaint into its general assault upon the inequities of segregated education.

In the spring of 1954 the Supreme Court finally abandoned its three-generation-old “separate but equal” doctrine, and the prize promised in Brown v. Board of Education belonged as well to Briggs v. Elliott, the Clarendon County case.

Harry and Eliza Briggs’s whole cause had been the future of their sons, Harry Jr. and Nathaniel, and their daughter, Katherine. That future had not in theory been won; and henceforth it would differ from the past only for being worse. The Briggs children would be fully grown up before black children would sit beside white ones in a rural South Carolina school. And while they waited, Clarendon Country turned not just stubbornly but savagely at bay. Eliza Briggs was fired from her motel job. Harry Briggs’s crop was refused service at every cotton gin in the county. The house of the Rev.J.A. DeLaine, a moving spirit in the school suit, was burned by parties unknown, and the gossip, fortunately false, was that the Briggs house would be the next to go.

J.A. DeLaine and Harry Briggs could only shake the dust from their native ground and try to make their way elsewhere. Eliza Briggs and the children stuck things out in Clarendon County until Harry Briggs was settled enough to bring them to Florida. In due course, the family moved to New York. Harry Jr. and Nathaniel did their time in the army and returned to useful and modest employments, Harry Jr. as a security guard and Nathaniel as an auto worker in a New Jersey Ford plant.

Their victory is a long while back and, if they have not quite been cheated of its promise, they cannot be confident that it will ever be fulfilled. But they are monuments of years unforgettably proud, and last month Eric Griffin, a twenty-seven-year-old playwright of color, invited them to lunch in gratitude for the inspiration he has drawn from country children who faced up to the challenges of heroism before he himself had even been born.

Harry Briggs Sr. died a few years ago; Eliza Briggs lives on in Columbia, South Carolina, where the families who joined in their suit meet every year to celebrate a glory still cherished and still incomplete.

“I never met a man who was more respectable than my father,” Nathaniel Briggs said yesterday. “Some things have hurt me, but they never hurt him to where he could ever say evil about other people, even the ones who did what they did to him and us.”

I suppose that practical persons would say in sum that Harry and Eliza Briggs failed. But they didn’t; somehow and somewhere they triumph still. It is America that has failed and fails on.

Copyright © 1991 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

June 27, 1991