Recognizing the legacy of Rev. Joseph DeLaine

The Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine remains a fairly unknown figure in South Carolina even though he was among the earliest leaders in the battle to overturn school segregation. Now, nearly 40 years after his death, descendants of the man who blocked his path want to honor him with a statue.

By Brad Dountz
Nov. 14, 2017

With so many historical civil rights leaders, it may be hard to choose just who or what to commemorate. As of late, there has been push for South Carolina to construct a statue for a little known, but very important African-American figure, from an unlikely source.

Welcome sign of Summerton, SC
DeLaine Elliott each fought for their own vision of what Summerton, SC should be

The Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine was a African Methodist Episcopal minister who helped African-Americans fight the Summerton school district to provide adequate facilities for black schoolchildren, who often walked miles to school and gathered in tumble-down shacks. Now, years after his death, the family of the man who stood in his way want to honor him with a statue.

The legal case DeLaine championed was known as Briggs v. Elliott, with Summerton public school official R.M. Elliott acting as the defendant and Harry Briggs, one of DeLaine’s parishioners, the lead plaintiff. Elliott was one of the biggest opponents of integration, a sentiment shared by a majority of white South Carolina leaders in his district. When asked by African-Americans families for buses for their children to ride to school, Elliot replied: “We ain’t got no money to buy a bus for your n—-r children.”

Mother and daughter celebrating desegregation
Mother and daughter celebrating desegregation

Briggs v. Elliott was one of five cases combined that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court as “Brown v. Board of Education.” The court ruled in 1954 that segregation in America was unconstitutional therefore illegal. The ruling should have been a personal victory for DeLaine, but it only led him down a path of pain. 

After the ruling, DeLaine’s church was burned down. Then one night in 1955, a group of people began firing guns at DeLaine’s house. DeLaine began shooting back in self-defense. DeLaine was later the only person charged in the shooting, even though it was in self-defense. With a warrant for his arrest in South Carolina, DeLaine relocated his family to Charlotte and Buffalo to set up new lives and churches. He never returned to South Carolina in his lifetime, but was posthumously pardoned by the state in 2000.

Now, over 60 years later, some are fighting for a statue to honor Joseph DeLaine. The man who petitioned for the statue first was Joseph Elliott, R.M. Elliott’s grandson.

“His legacy is all around us, even though people aren’t aware of it,” Elliott said of Delaine. “He is as responsible as anyone for the whole civil rights movement that led to the desegregation of schools and the desegregation of public accommodations throughout the United States.”

Elliott, a retired school principal who lives in Aiken, is well-informed with the main social issues that go on today and in history and feels like Confederate memorials are not the best thing for this country.

Ben Tillman memorial statue
Controversial statue of Ben Tillman still stands today.

“Pitchfork Ben Tillman’s is a slap in the face of all African-Americans and right-thinking Americans of all groups,” he said. Tillman, South Carolina’s longtime governor and senator, was a notorious racist who disparaged African-Americans with his rhetoric and legislation. 

All throughout the country, there are hundreds of statues and memorials that commemorate the people who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Some of these statues are even placed on the grounds of the South Carolina State House.

“I think it’s definitely good to honor those historical people,” USC senior Michael Wieland said. “Just because they fought on a losing side of a war doesn’t mean they should be forgotten about, but there definitely needs to be more equal showing of civil rights leaders and those pushing for civil rights.”

Joseph Elliott does think statues and memorials are a good way to honor deserving people and that’s why he wants Joseph DeLaine to have one, too. When asked if his motivation to honor DeLaine is way to make up for his family’s mishandling of the “Briggs v. Elliott,”, Elliott equivocated a bit.

“I’m sure that looms somewhere in my unconsciousness, but it is certainly not the chief and prevailing motive. The motive is simple: ‘Simple Justice’, the title of a book by Richard Kluger, much of which gives credit to Rev. DeLaine for the Brown decision,” he said.

Joseph is not the only Elliott to help fight to commemorate DeLaine. Carl Elliott, Joseph’s cousin, wrote an article for “The New York Times” calling for a statue.

Joseph DeLaine Jr.
Even today, Joseph DeLaine Jr. continues to fight for his father’s legacy

“Well, the Elliott family is in a unique position to speak up for DeLaine and his cause. Our family name is on the court case opposing desegregation,” Carl Elliott said.

“A statue of DeLaine won’t undo the wrongs of the past, but it would at least signal our commitment to do better in the future.”

When talking with African-American USC students about statues like the one being proposed of Joseph DeLaine, the impact could be massive.

“Extremely important,” USC senior Jereme Hines said. “What should be done is get multiple types of artifacts for women, for African-Americans, etc., etc., because those histories as a result of history being focused more on those people.” 

“The importance behind those African-American monuments is to be able to for not just African-Americans to honor those people, but all Americans.”

 

 

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