Greenville's 'Big Idea' looked at way blacks lived

civil rights historic

Sixty years ago, black people here were relegated to lives of blatant inequality, as "Everybody's Business," a report published by the Community Council of Greater Greenville in May 1950, makes clear.

Funded by the Community Chest, predecessor of the United Way, this study of "the conditions affecting the Negro population of the Greenville area" arose from the startling request of black women leaders in 1948 for a "Negro Branch" of the YWCA.

Their timing was significant. A year earlier, the internationally-publicized Willie Earle lynching trial had ended with its 29 white defendants being found not guilty. Progressive business leaders, eager for economic development, blanched at the blemish on the city's carefully groomed reputation. Relationships between black and white citizens grew tense. While City Council moved to defuse tensions by considering urban improvement programs and actually installed traffic blinkers at "colored" schools, it took two years to make Greenville's "Big Idea" -- a thorough analysis of the way black people lived -- a reality.

The Community Council hired the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, which had assisted Jacksonville, Fla., with a similar study in 1945, to help with questionnaires. The council also appointed community volunteer Mrs. C.C. Withington and Professor J. E. Beck, principal of Sterling High School, as chair and co-chair of the 150 or so volunteers who would gather data and make recommendations. Eleven subcommittees, each with a white chair and a black co-chair, began work after a mass biracial meeting at Greenville High School on July 25, 1949. They carefully avoided making sweeping conclusions or using anecdotal evidence and made a limited number of recommendations. But statistics spoke for themselves.

Take health care, for example. Although 22.3 percent (29,258 of 107,322) of Greenville County's residents were Negro, none of the four black doctors in the county could practice at Greenville General Hospital, where four black nurses (there were 75 white ones), served 50 "Negro beds." Those beds were all in wards; no private or semi-private rooms were available to black patients, and the only toilet available to black women was in a utility room. St. Francis Hospital and the Greenville Maternity Shelter were for whites only, so almost all black babies were delivered by midwives. Three black dentists cared for 17,000 black patients; no white dentist saw black patients.

Law enforcement bias was evident. The reason most frequently given (in 25 percent of the cases) for the arrest of a black man was for "investigation," whatever that meant -- records show the committee didn't know, either. The second was for gambling, although white gambling clubs flourished unchecked by the all-white police force. (Perhaps, the subcommittee suggested, a black policeman might be hired for black neighborhoods.) The subcommittee on law enforcement was pleased to report, however, that interracial homicides were exceptionally low (no black had killed a white in 1948). On the other hand, in 16 cases of black-on-black homicide, 10 defendants were found innocent, and most were sentenced to 10 years or less in prison.

Infrastructure was another problem. Old privies -- most used by two or more families -- were still found with black rental housing. The roads superintendent estimated that there were 75 miles of unpaved roads in the city, three-quarters of them in "Negro sections," as were 100 miles of roads without sidewalks. Fire protection outside the immediate city limits, especially around Sterling High School, was inadequate.

So were schools. "Negro schools" were so overcrowded that all students were on double sessions, attending just four hours a day. The ratio of students to teachers was 36.3 to 1. Dropout rates were eye-opening: of the 1,939 black children who had entered first grade in 1933, only 147 completed the 11th grade, the final grade at the time, in 1944. Of those, only 79 went on to college. No black school except the one at Brutontown, a part of the Parker System, had a school bus, and the nearest public bus stop for Sterling High School was a half-mile from the school.

Buses caused other problems, too. Although drivers generally were courteous, all buses carried signs reading, "White Patrons Please Seat from Front," and "Colored Patrons Please Seat from Rear." Many white riders sat halfway or even further back, which meant that black riders often stood while there were seats at the front of the bus. Terminal facilities for "colored patrons" were inadequate. At Union Station, for example, the waiting room for whites was 50 by 150 feet. The one for blacks, 15 by 15 feet, was entered through a loading zone, had no screens on windows and doors, no water cooler, and was cleaned infrequently. Rest rooms lacked ventilation, wash basins and locks.

No public park in the county was open to blacks; their only access to public recreation was five inadequately equipped school playgrounds. Other recreational facilities included two movie theaters, one for blacks only, the other with balcony space; a private swimming pool in poor repair near Allen School; a "Negro Branch" library at the Phillis Wheatley Center; occasional use of Mayberry Park for black baseball teams; and the well-equipped new gymnasium-auditorium at Sterling High School.

The report did not challenge segregation: In the 1950 South, such a challenge was unthinkable. But inequality in funding and provision for basic needs is revealed on every page.

Yet there were glimpses of hope in the otherwise grim numbers: more blacks were registering to vote; jury lists, drawn from voter registrations, were beginning to include black people; and school consolidation was on the horizon.

"Everybody's Business" provided ammunition for change in Greenville, but did not create it. A 1954 Supreme Court decision, Great Society Civil Rights legislation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s insistent drive and powerful voice, and, unfortunately, marches, sit-ins, riots, violence and death came before a measure of equality was achieved.

It was too late for many who died during the struggle. But for those who have lived to see it, a man of color in the White House is indeed the realization of a once impossible dream.

Judith Bainbridge