The first time I met B.B. DeLaine, the civil rights activist who died last week and whose family’s courage in the 1950s led to the Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools, I saw him through the eyes of young people. I smile in remembering.
It was eight years ago when the Levine Museum of the New South was unveiling what has become its much lauded signature exhibit called “Courage.” The exhibit highlighted the role of DeLaine’s family in the school desegregation case in Clarendon County, S.C., and the Brown v. Board of Education case that was borne from the family’s efforts.
I had invited six members of the Observer editorial board’s Young Voices forum, students who participated in an editorial feature where they respond to questions about current events, to tour the exhibit in advance of its opening. The multi-racial group in the tour included a home-school student, a private school student and four others from public schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Hickory. They ranged in age from 13 to 18.
Much to my delight – and to theirs – B.B. DeLaine and his brother Joe agreed to be our tour guides.
What ensued was a remarkable exchange between the students and the DeLaines. The students gazed with awe as B.B. and Joe told the story of all that they, their parents and many others went through to achieve equal rights in public schools for blacks.
With low-key eloquence, B.B. took the lead in telling the story, and noted that it took the courage of blacks and whites to topple the system that kept blacks in inferior schools.
B.B. vividly remembered what those times were like, describing for the students the old dilapidated buildings heated with pot-bellied stoves, the 75-80 students crammed into single classes with one teacher, the nine-mile walk to school because no school buses were provided for black students, and the second-hand books stamped with “colored only” so students knew their place in society.
He told of how their father, the Rev. Joseph Armstrong DeLaine, then principal of a school near Summerton in Clarendon County, spearheaded an effort to change things – starting with petitions and a push to end discrimination in bus transportation.
The Rev. DeLaine lost his job and several attempts were made on his life. In 1955 a warrant was issued for his arrest when he returned fire after his home was shot at. He fled the state.
But history had already been made. That bus protest led to a lawsuit that was the first of five suits consolidated into the landmark Brown case in which the Supreme Court outlawed school desegregation in 1954.
B.B. and Joe had a profound impact on the students on tour at the Levine that day. Students told me later that the DeLaines not only brought history alive for them, they made them see that as young people they have the power to shape their own destiny and have a meaningful impact on the world in which they live.
Said one student: “I thought it was pretty cool that people who signed the petition were kids our age… High school students were willing to endanger their own lives for the sake of their education.”
And from another: “When we were going through the exhibit and we saw the first picture of the school house and they pointed to the picture and said that’s my mother, that’s me. I said, what? This was their life story that changed the course of history.”
Given all that he and his family had gone through, B.B. could have let others continue the hard work of pushing for equal rights. He didn’t. He was a leader of Charlotte’s sit-ins that opened up lunch counters to all people. He was the first black teacher at Charlotte’s Garinger High School, and he helped organize Charlotte’s Swann Fellowship to fight resegregation of the public schools.
I saw and talked with B.B. DeLaine several times after that day in 2004. The last time, he was using a walker and his health had deteriorated. Yet his sparkling eyes and warm smile still illuminated the “quiet crusader,” as his brother so aptly called him.
There will no doubt be tears at the memorial service for B.B on Saturday. But Brumit B. DeLaine, slight in build, walked tall – and his life is a roadmap for others to do the same. Those who met him, like the students at the Levine in 2004, learned a lot and were enriched by the experience. We should smile in remembering that.