An indelible snapshot in the history of civil rights in South Carolina is captured in the book “Dawn of Desegregation: J.A. De Laine and Briggs v. Elliott.” It chronicles the battle for educational equality led by Methodist minister Reverend J.A. De Laine and several brave African-American families in Clarendon County that were at the center of the landmark 1952 Briggs v. Elliott lawsuit, which paved the way for the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education case that desegregated public schools.
Rev. De Laine’s daughter, Ophelia De Laine Gona authored the book to, as she says, tell the true story of her father’s role in fighting for equality in schools in Clarendon County in the 1940s and 1950s.
Despite death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and the burning of his Lake City church and Summerton home, Gona says her father never wavered from his belief in the American Dream.
Gona says, prior to the Briggs v. Elliott lawsuit, her father had failed in other attempts to get school bus transportation for black students in the local school district– some of whom had to walk 18 miles round-trip to school. He also failed in a lawsuit calling for equal facilities for black and white students had. Gona says that suit was withdrawn because of a technicality.
The NAACP stepped in to help in 1952, led by a young black attorney who would later become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice– Thurgood Marshall. Gona says Marshall told the Clarendon County group that they should file a suit that would ask for desegregation of the public school system. Briggs v. Elliott was the first of the five cases combined into the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit. Gona says Marshall wanted to make sure that the adults who signed the petition all had at least one child in the district.
Gona says she included a narrative in the book based on a speech written by her mother. Gona reads the excerpt from the book describing her mother’s fears after her father fled the state in October 1955 for fear of his life.
While Rev. Da Laine headed for New York, his wife Mattie stayed with neighbors until she could join him.
Reverend De Laine, Harry and Eliza Briggs, and Levi Peason were awarded Congressional Gold Medals posthumously in 2003 for their work toward educational equality. Gona says she wrote the book to fulfill her father’s request that she write a book about his experiences during those turbulent times in Summerton and Lake City,
Gona, a retired medical school professor living in Orlando, is appearing in Columbia at the 15th annual South Carolina Book Festival Sunday at 11:15 am in the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. The event is free and runs from 9am to 5pm Saturday and 10am to 5pm Sunday.