Students study, re-enact moments in Charleston’s history

Dressed in 1950s-style attire, elementary school classmates Da’Nae Devore and Chance Washington sat at a dinner table with servings of fried chicken and okra soup reminiscent of a scene decades ago at the Brooks Motel’s restaurant on Morris Street.

Their cute skit was not a simple table etiquette lesson. Instead, it educated them and other students about the history of Brooks and other Black-owned businesses that were essential to Black life in a segregated Charleston.

“Segregation [was a time] when White people and Black people [couldn’t] come together,” said 9-year-old Devore, a third grader at Charleston Progressive Academy. “That was a bad thing because everyone should be treated equally. Black businesses were important so Black people could have a place to stay and eat” when White businesses turned them away, she said.

Charleston Progressive is one of five schools that participated in an oral history project called “Black Wall Street of Charleston.” Students at Burke High School, Julian Mitchell and Sanders-Clyde elementary schools and Simmons-Pinckney Middle School also presented displays featuring current and former Black businesses.

The activity was part of a recent multi-faceted three-hour program that drew some 400 people to Burke’s auditorium. Elementary and middle schoolers danced, sang and played ukuleles. Later, Simmons-Pinckney and Burke students were tutored on how to conduct oral history interviews and access archives.

Inaugural May Festival

The activities were part of an inaugural May Festival organized by the District 20 Principal Collaboration Program (D20PCP), the Burke High School Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston (PSC).

Mattese Lecque, the foundation’s vice president, told students, parents and residents that students are immersed in learning the history of Black businesses that operated in the city from the late 1800s to the early 1960s. Through that experience, she said, students have studied Black businesses that were founded with an entrepreneurial spirit during difficult times. Media specialists and a research team with the Burke foundation helped the students prepare the displays.

Anna-Catherine Carroll, the PSC’s manager of preservation initiatives, told the audience: “This is what historic preservation is all about: honoring those who have gone before us, and telling the full story to ensure this significant community history lives on for generations to come.”

The PSC’s partnership with predominantly Black schools represents a new era for the 103-year-old preservation society that has moved toward a more inclusive history. The PSC’s expanded mission “has only been possible through years of listening to and learning from Black leaders and educators in the Charleston community,” Carroll told the Charleston City Paper.

“Long-term collaborative projects like the Morris Street Business District research project, the Charleston Justice Journey and efforts to preserve historic Black burial grounds” led to partnerships with the D20PCP and the Burke foundation, she said.

Brian Turner, PSC’s president and CEO, said in a statement: “Preservation is an evolving practice, and while we are encouraged by recent moves to embrace and protect underrepresented history, there is a long list of lost structures, streetscapes, and stories we can’t get back. But events like [the program at Burke] remind us that not all is lost, and the time is now to document and celebrate this history.”

A hallway of youthful energy

Amid the exhibits of Black businesses and other local organizations that lined the hallway outside of Burke’s auditorium the students’ energy created a hustle and bustle reminiscent of decades ago when Black students at downtown schools gathered for special events.

Dr. Barbara Dilligard, May Festival co-chair and D20PCP consultant, said the group’s goal “is to increase [students’] academic achievement in reading and math, specifically, which will influence their performance in all subject areas.”

The D20PCP wants to connect downtown elementary and middle schools in a “feeder system” to Burke in which students interact in friendly competition through dance, singing and music performances to create a sense of community beyond their school.

“We are also planning other events to involve students in the study of topics such as Black inventors, writers and achieving Burke alumni” to promote an “I can do” mindset among them, said Dilligard, a retired deputy superintendent with the Charleston County School District.

As the students rushed from the auditorium into the hallway, they brushed past Dorothy Jenkins, who was elected in March as president of the Charleston Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Jenkins, a retired special education teacher, said, “I know how talented our young people are. We need to have more [student-driven research] and I am happy to see them doing something in a positive direction.”

Jenkins said she’s encouraging students at Burke, the College of Charleston and The Citadel to form NAACP youth chapters. “We have so many gifted young people,” she said. “They need to be able to showcase their talents.”

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