Award-Winning Play Celebrates the Brave Citizens of South Carolina, Who Fought for Freedom and Justice in the Era of Segregation and Whose Efforts Led Directly to the United States Supreme Court’s Landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Ruling
The Seat of Justice features a cast of 22 led by professional New York actors Marvin Bell, who will play the Rev. Joseph DeLaine, one of the ministers who led the desegregation movement in Clarendon County and Crystin Gilmore, who will play Mrs. Ruby Cornwell, the legendary Charleston Civil Rights leader who sat on the front row of the Federal Courthouse in Charleston when the case of Briggs v. Elliott came to trial in 1950. Bell and Gilmore will be joined by members of Charleston Stage’s Resident Professional Acting Company, as well as, leading Charleston based performers. In addition, students from Ashley River Creative Arts, Charleston Development Academy, Charleston School of the Arts, Howe Hall Aims and Mason Prep will play the students of Clarendon County.
The production will feature a number of special performances, enrichment events and other activities to provide additional insight into this moving story. These will begin with a special performance on Wednesday, February 17, 2016, for members of the surrounding and state Bar Associations that will feature and post show discussion featuring South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Costa M. Pleicones, United States District Judge Richard Gergel and moderated by South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Clifton Newman. The discussion will focus on the ethical issues, the struggle and the legal case of Briggs v. Elliott brought to the forefront. The 2pm private matinee on Saturday, February 20th, hosted by The College of Charleston’s Avery Institute for Afro-American History and Culture will honor the descendants of the Briggs vs. Elliott parents who signed a desegregation petition demanding desegregation in 1948, as well as, honoring descendants of other key players in the struggle for freedom and justice. Following the 3pm matinee performance on Sunday, February 21st, a special post show panel discussion, sponsored by The International African American Museum and moderated by College of Charleston Professor of History, Bernard Powers, will provide insights into the historical context of the story. The panel will include Dr. Jon Hale from the College of Charleston, Dr. Marcus Cox from the Citadel and Reverend Joseph A. Darby. In addition to the 3 weeks of public performances, more than 5,000 area school students will also attend special school day matinee performances including performances for the present day Clarendon County students, who go to school in Summerton, where this struggle for freedom and justice began. An exhibit of Civil Rights photographs taken by Cecil Williams, a native of Orangeburg and acclaimed photographer who captured the images of many of the players portrayed in The Seat of Justice, will be on exhibit during the run of The Seat of Justice.
Receiving a special recognition award in 2004 by the Charleston branch of the NAACP, Julian Wiles’s The Seat of Justice is based on original transcripts from the Briggs v. Elliott case. The Seat of Justice is told through the eyes of the late Mrs. Ruby Cornwell, a Charleston civil rights leader who, until her death at the age of 100, was at the forefront of the struggle for justice and equality in Charleston. When the Briggs v. Elliott case was heard in Charleston, Mrs. Cornwell sat on the very front row for every day of the trial. One of the judges on the panel of three, J. Waties Waring was an outspoken advocate of Civil Rights and a friend to the struggle. Over time, Mrs. Cornwell became a close friend with Mrs. Waring, the Judge’s wife who too was quite progressive and an outspoken critic of the current social order. When Mrs. Waring invited Mrs. Cornwell to her home for tea in the early 1950’s, it was the first time that a black person had been invited as a guest to a white home in Charleston for a social occasion. Wiles interviewed Mrs. Cornwell prior to her death in 2003 to gain her insights on the case. His research also led him to conversations with Joseph DeLaine, Jr., son of The Rev. Joseph DeLaine, as well as, conversations with Joe Elliott, grandson of Roderick Elliott, the Chairman of the Clarendon Country School District 22 Board of Trustees.
GUEST ARTIST BIOS
An award-winning actress based in New York and born the daughter of a preacher and an educator from the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, Crystin found her love for performing in the church. She received a B.F.A. in Performance from the University of Memphis. Crystin’s award-winning roles include Shug in The Color Purple at Playhouse on the Square and Speakeasy Stage Company ~Ostrander, IRNE and Arts Impulse Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, playing Dottie Moffat in Caroline, Or Change ~Ostrander for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical at Playhouse on the Square, and Pearl in Black Pearl Sings! at Circuit Playhouse ~Ostrander Award for Best Lead in a Drama. A former member of Charleston Stage’s Professional Resident Acting Company, she appeared on the stage at the Dock Street Theatre playing characters such as Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray, Evilene in The Wiz, Peggy Clark in Blue and Momma Morton in Chicago, The Musical. Recent credits include: Wanda in Beehive: The 60’s Musical! at Greenbrier Valley Theatre, Sophia in The Clark Doll, A Bedtime Story at Manhattan Repertory Theatre and an Ensemble role in Summer Blue at the Theatre for a New City. Crystin currently lives in New York with her loving husband Jules.
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Playwright Julian Wiles is the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Charleston Stage, Charleston, South Carolina’s largest professional theatre company in residence at the Historic Dock Street Theatre. Wiles grew up on a cotton farm in Ft. Motte, South Carolina. He attended Clemson University, received a history degree from the College of Charleston in 1974 and an MFA in Dramatic Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1976. Wiles has written or adapted 27 original plays and musicals for the company, many of which are published and produced around the county. These include the boy who stole the stars, Nevermore! Edgar Allan Poe, the Final Mystery, The Seat of Justice, Denmark Vesey: Insurrection, Gershwin at Folly, Helium and most recently, Inga Binga. Wiles is a recipient of the 2010 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, the highest honor in the arts awarded by the South Carolina Arts Commission. Wiles is also a member of the Dramatists Guild.
SPECIAL ENRICHMENT EVENTS
BROWN V. SCHOOL BOARD DESEGREGATION DECISION
The Seat of Justice tells the remarkable true story of how a group of concerned parents in rural Clarendon County, South Carolina in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s brought a series of lawsuits asking for fair treatment in their public schools. One of these suits, Briggs v. Elliott was the first lawsuit in the country demanding desegregation of the public schools. This case would be combined with 4 other cases to become the lead case in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit. Thurgood Marshall, lead attorney for the NAACP, came to South Carolina to represent the children and their parents in this case. The first trial was held at the Federal Courthouse in Charleston in March, 1948.
The play’s narrator is the late Mrs. Ruby Cornwell, a leading civil rights advocate, who sat on the front row at this trial in Charleston. Mrs. Cornwell passed away in 2003 at the age of 100, having shared her story with journalists, historians and playwright Julian Wiles, who is the author of The Seat of Justice.
TIMELINE: Briggs v. Elliott and the journey to Brown v. Board of Education
1942: The Rev. J. A. De Laine, a resident, active pastor and elementary school principal in Clarendon County, helped form the Clarendon County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
June 1947: During a summer school session at Allen University in Columbia, De Laine was greatly inspired by James Hinton, Executive Director of the State Conference of the NAACP, who argued that black residents needed to go to court to get school buses for their children.
1947: Seventeen parents of the Davis Station community purchased a bus for the transportation of their children to the Scott’s Branch High School in Summerton. Maintenance and operational costs were expensive and the parents could not afford the upkeep so they decided to ask the county to help with these costs. They turned to community leader, pastor and elementary school principal, the Rev. J. A. De Laine to make their case. De Laine approached Roderick Elliott, the school board chairman, who turned down their request. Nearby, the newly completed white high school in the county had a brand new fleet of buses for their students.
March 1948: Inspired by the Rev. James Hinton, now state president of the NAACP, and the Rev. De Laine, who had helped found the Clarendon County NAACP chapter, Levi Pearson a farmer from the rural Davis Station area of Clarendon County filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of his three children. He was represented by the NAACP’s legal team, Harold Boulware from the state office and Thurgood Marshall from the national office. In court, Boulware and Marshall argued that Pearson’s children suffered “irreparable damage” because they did not have the access to good and safe transportation enjoyed by the county’s white children. The case faltered on a technicality: since Pearson’s farm straddled two separate school districts, the state was able to show that Pearson paid taxes in one district but his children actually attended school in another district. The legal team had no choice but to withdraw the suit.
January 1949: De Laine and Pearson attended the NAACP state conference meeting in Charleston to bring attention to the plight of black schools in Clarendon County and to seek support for further litigation to alleviate these conditions. Harold Boulware urged them to meet again with Thurgood Marshall to discuss a new suit.
March 1949: The Rev. De Laine, the Rev. J. W. Seals and five members of the Pearson family met with Marshall in Columbia. An agreement was reached at this meeting that the NAACP would entertain the development of a new federal lawsuit to demand not only school bus funds but also the full “equalization of educational opportunity” in Clarendon schools for black children.
April 1949: Led by the Rev. De Laine and others, meetings were held at four locations around Clarendon County to explain the proposed litigation to the black community and to identify potential plaintiffs.
May 1949: Since Clarendon County had many school districts at the time, Marshall and his team suggested the case be narrowed to one district. They chose Clarendon County School District No. 22, since it had separate white and black high schools-the Scott’s Branch High School for black students and Summerton High School for white students.
November 1949: A petition was circulated in the community seeking the full “equalization of educational opportunities” for all the children of Clarendon County. Ultimately, 107 signatures of parents and children filled this petition. Turned down again by the Clarendon County School Board, Marshall and his team filed a new federal lawsuit in the US District Court in Charleston. The case was assigned to Federal Judge Waties Waring, a Charleston native who had grown up with the customs and norms of segregated South Carolina society. But some years earlier, after presiding over the Isaac Woodward case in 1947, he had become a stalwart defender of equal rights. Isaac Woodward, after being honorably discharged from the United States Army in 1946 and still in his uniform, was on a bus heading to his home. When the bus stopped in Aiken, SC, Woodward had an altercation with the white bus driver when Woodward asked for time to use the restroom before the bus left. The driver waited but was livid. At the next stop in Batesburg, SC, the irate driver had Woodward dragged from the bus and arrested by the town police chief, Linwood Shull. During the night, Shull brutally beat and blinded Woodward. A national outcry followed the news of this brutal attack and when the state of South Carolina refused to act, a Federal case was brought against Chief Shull. Judge Waring, from a prominent Old Charleston family, presided. At the trial, the US Attorney presented a half-hearted case and the all-white jury quickly cleared Shull. (Blacks at the time were precluded from serving on juries). The case, however, transformed Judge Waring. He began to look at, what at the time was called “the race question,” in new ways. He later wrote, “I was shocked by the hypocrisy of my government…in submitting that disgraceful case….”. Over the next few years, to the consternation of the South Carolina legal establishment, Waring became a stalwart defender of equal rights. In 1947, he ruled that the state had to pay black and white teachers equally. In 1948, when the state Democratic Party alleged it was a private club and could deny ballots to black voters, Waring ordered their primaries open to all…regardless of race.
July 1950: A new suit narrowed the case to just 20 plaintiffs-each plaintiff a parent of a child attending school in Clarendon County District 22. This second petition, with these 20 names, was prepared. When this too was turned down by the school board, yet a new case was filed in Charleston, this one dramatically taking segregation head-on. It demanded the elimination of segregated facilities in the public schools of Clarendon County. The case would be known as Briggs v. Elliot, the first desegregation case filed America. The case was named for Harry Briggs, alphabetically the first name on the new petition and for R. M. Elliott, Chairman of Clarendon County District 22 School Board. Because the case would be focusing on constitutional issues, a panel of Federal Judges was assigned with two additional judges joining Judge Waring.
1951: Realizing the inequality of the black schools in South Carolina, Governor Jimmy Burns moved to pre-empt the federal lawsuit. At his urging, the South Carolina Legislature passed a three percent sales tax (the state’s first) to build and update schools. By updating facilities, the state hoped to soon be in a position to argue that schools were separate and equal for black and white students. At the same time, legislation was passed to block state aid to any public school that became integrated.
February 1951: The State of South Carolina, bringing its full legal forces to bear, entered the case on behalf of Clarendon County.
March 1951: With tensions high because of the pending lawsuit, Rev. De Laine’s home in Summerton was destroyed by fire. Arson was suspected but never proved.
May 28, 1951: The three-judge panel heard the Briggs v. Elliott arguments in Charleston. In the opening statements by Robert Figg, the attorney for the state of South Carolina, he surprisingly conceded to the court that the state realized that separate school facilities in the state were not yet equal but argued the state’s school sales tax and new building program would soon rectify that and make the pending case moot. The court, however, decided that the plaintiffs could still make their case and it moved forward.
June 23, 1951: At the end of the trial, though all three judges agreed the schools were not equal for black and white children in the state, Judges John J. Parker and George Bell Timmerman agreed to give the state time to rectify this condition and noted that, “it is a late day” to call segregation unconstitutional. Judge J. Waites Waring, however, firmly disagreed with his colleagues by issuing a fiery dissent concluding that “segregation per se is inequality” and is blatantly unconstitutional.
July 1951: Using Judge Waring’s dissent as the basis for their argument, Marshall and his team appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. While Waring’s dissent would help move the case forward, personally Waring and his wife, Elizabeth, were totally ostracized from Charleston Society. Their strong political beliefs and their recent remarriage (they were both divorcees-a scandal in conservative Charleston) led them from Charleston to New York where they resettled. Before departing Charleston, after a long and distinguished career, Judge Waring retired from the bench.
January 28, 1952: The Supreme Court returned the Briggs case to the Federal District Court in Charleston to review a progress report filed by Clarendon County. At this hearing, Clarendon County school officials reported that they were planning to build three new schools for black students and that they had equalized teacher salaries, equipment and curricula plus buses were now being provided to black students. They argued that the county’s separate facilities for black and white students would soon be equal and the case should be dismissed.
March 13, 1952: The new three-judge panel ruled in favor of the county school board. Judge Armistead M. Dobie, having replaced the retired Waring, made the ruling unanimous. But Thurgood Marshall and his legal team did not give up. Once more, they appealed this new Briggs v. Elliott ruling to the United States Supreme Court, again arguing that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional and, in and of itself, harmful to black students.
November 1952: Governor Burns took action to further the state’s case. He engaged John Davis, the nation’s most respected appellate attorney, to make South Carolina’s case before the Supreme Court. At the next election, at the urging of Governor Byrnes, a majority of South Carolinian eligible voters (most black voters at the time were disenfranchised) approved an amendment to the state constitution ending the requirement of a public school system for the children of South Carolina. This raised the specter that if the “separate but equal” doctrine was struck down by the Supreme Court, the state might totally abandon the public schools in South Carolina.
December 9, 1952: The US Supreme Court heard South Carolina’s Briggs vs. Elliott case, the nation’s first desegregation case, which had now been consolidated with four other cases: Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (filed in Virginia), Gebhart v. Belton (filed in Delaware), Bolling v. Sharpe (filed in Washington D.C.) and Brown v. Board of Education, (filed in Topeka, Kansas). On this date, oral arguments began. Though Briggs was the first case filed and alphabetically should be first (tradition being the case which the combined cases were expected to be named) the case, instead, would be known in history under the name of the Kansas Case, Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka. Some said the court made this choice so as not to focus on the South, choosing a western state instead. But the Briggs case remained the lead case and the one that Thurgood Marshall himself argued before the court.
June 8, 1953: In a somewhat unusual move, the Supreme Court asked the litigants to reargue the case the next year, this time asking the litigants to focus on the intent of Congress when passing the 14th Amendment and the state’s understanding of this amendment when ratified. Much of the case hinged on the “equal protection” clause of this amendment.
May 17, 1954: The US Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Briggs vs. Elliott and the other plaintiffs. Reading the unanimous decision from the bench, Chief Justice Earl Warren dramatically announced that the nine-member Supreme Court found that the law “separate but equal” and the segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional. In doing so, the court struck down the long held precedent of “separate but equal” set forth in the 19th century Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.
April 11, 1955: At the court’s request, the plaintiffs returned to the Supreme Court once more to present arguments as to how the Brown ruling should be enforced-whether the states should desegregate immediately or use some gradual approach.
May 31, 1955: The Supreme Court ruled that states must move to desegregate their schools with all “deliberate speed.”
October 1955: Retribution continued against the Briggs v. Elliott plaintiffs. Sharecroppers were forced off their land and plaintiffs lost their jobs. After two months of vandalism and harassment, the Rev. De Laine (now living in Lake City, SC) was told to leave town or suffer the consequences. Soon after, De Laine’s church, St. James, was completely destroyed by arson.
Midnight, October 10, 1955: Three separate volleys of gunfire were directed into the Rev. De Laine’s residence by passing automobiles. The third time the shots were fired, De Laine shot back, allegedly injuring more than one occupant in the automobiles. De Laine and his family fled in the dead of night, making their way to New York City. The State of South Carolina issued a warrant for De Laine’s arrest, alleging he was at fault and charging De Laine with “assault and battery with the intent to kill.” The State of New York, however, refused to extradite De Laine.
Late 1950’s/Early 1960’s: Legislatures in South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Virginia adopted resolutions declaring the Brown v. Board decision “null, void and no effect.” Later they passed additional resolutions delaying legislation such as “Freedom of Choice” provisions that allowed black students to attend white schools only if there was “room” in the white schools.
1963: With States and school districts continuing to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling, a new Federal desegregation case was filed in Charleston, nine years after the Brown case. The court ruled that Charleston schools must immediately admit 11 black students. The district then tried to use test scores to deny any further transfers.
Fall 1965: After still another federal court suit, Clarendon County schools were finally ordered to admit several black students to the all-white Summerton High School. Two years later to avoid further integration, Clarendon County’s District 22 School Board voted to close all of the white schools in the district. Those schools have never reopened. White parents in Summerton formed their own white-only private academy abandoning the public schools.
1968: Judge J. Waites Waring died in New York. His body was returned to Charleston for internment. Hundreds of black citizens turned out to honor him while less than a half-dozen whites attended.
February 1970: Following more than 16 years of additional litigation, as the state of South Carolina sought to thwart school integration, the federal courts finally ruled that all South Carolina Public Schools must integrate not “with all deliberate speed” but immediately. The Greenville County school district complied with a court order and became the first district in the state to fully integrate. Other districts across the state complied as well. Soon many whites fled the public school system and segregation academies were established across the state.
August 1974: The Rev. De Laine died in Charlotte, NC, where he had lived since retiring in 1971.
October 10, 2000: The South Carolina Parole Board granted Rev. De Laine a posthumous pardon in response to those who had fired into his home and forcing him to flee the state in 1955.
SIGNERS OF THE FIRST PETITION
Lila May Huggins
Lillie Eva Johnson
Ruby Lee Johnson
Betty J. Johnson
Bobby M. Johnson
Preston Johnson, Jr.
Harry Briggs Sr.
Harry Briggs, Jr.
Thomas Lee Briggs
Katherine Eliza Briggs
Willie H. Brown
Ethel Mae Brown
Joe Morris Brown
Hilton C. Bennett
William Gibson, Jr.
Billie S. Fleming
Mary O. Lawson
Eddie Lee Lawson
Susan Ann Lawson
Bennie Parson, Jr.
Sarah Ellen Ragin
Joseph Emmerson Wheeler
E. E. Richburg
Rebecca I. Richburg
Samuel Gary Johnson
Annie L. Richardson
Jackson D. Richardson
Mary J. Oliver
Louis Oliver, Jr.
Esther F. Singletary
Janie L. Fludd
Sue Esther Hilton
Bennie Lee Lawson
Willie M. Stukes
Gardenia E. Stukes
Louis W. Stukes
Willie M. Stukes, Jr.
Annie Lee Tindal
Mary L. Bennett
SIGNERS OF THE SECOND PETITION
James H. Bennett
William M. Stukes
February 19, 2016 Fr/Opening Night 7:30pm
February 20, 2016 Sa 7:30pm
THE SEAT OF JUSTICE Credits:
Lead Title Sponsor: Fred E. Pittman, M.D.Associate Sponsor: Dr. Del and Linda Schutte
Supporting Sponsor: BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina
THE SEAT OF JUSTICE Cast (In Alphabetical Order):
CHARACTER – ACTOR
Rev. J.A. De Laine – Marvin Bell*
Fireman – Dwaine Bennett
Mr. Sonny – Nathan Burke***
Supreme Court Clerk, Mr. Harrigan, Fire Chief – Pen Chance***
Judge Waties Waring – Victor Clark
Mrs. Viola Pearson, YWCA Guest, Cora – Letty Clay
Mrs. Elizabeth Waring – Beth Curley
Jury Foreman, R.M. Elliott – Chad Estel
Mrs. Ruby Cornwell – Crystin Gilmore**
Daisy Pearson – Jailyn Harris
Isaac – Moses lane
States Attorney Figg, Rep Garrett – David Loar
Levi Pearson, Dr. Kenneth Clark – Anthony McCutchen
Thurgood Marshall – Henry Clay Middleton
Robert Carter – Randolph Middleton
Liza, YWCA Guest, Ensemble – Lisa Montgomery
James Pearson, Issac Woodard – Malcolm Palmer****
Eloise Pearson – Kayla Peake
Reverend McCord – Kent Reynolds***
Mrs. Elizabeth, Gossip – Maggie Saunders***
Silas, Mr. Howard Boulware – John Smalls
Rosalee, Mrs. De Laine – Teresa Smith
Sonnyboy – Tawes Wenz
Harry Briggs – Adolphus F. Williams
Harry Briggs, Jr. – Gregory Williams
Levi Pearson, Jr. – Rormello Young
* The Actor appears through the courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association,
the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
** New York Guest Actor
** A Member of Charleston Stage’s Professional Resident Acting Company
**** A Member of Charleston Stage’s Performance Troupe