Filed Under African American

Allies: Crossing the Color Line with Septima Clark, 1947-1956

Black women were leaders at the Coming Street YWCA. After returning to Charleston, Clark tackled community problems, working with Black women’s clubs and white allies who opposed segregation. When fired from her Charleston teaching job for belonging to the NAACP, she became director of workshops for activists at Highlander Folk School in TN.

In 1950, Charlestonians were shocked by a speech made at the Coming Street YWCA, denouncing segregation. A well-known, affluent white woman named Elizabeth Waring delivered the speech. The ensuing backlash typified the growing resistance to a racially integrated society that Septima Clark and white allies encountered during the 1950s, within and beyond Charleston.

After returning to her hometown in 1947, Ms. Clark found a job teaching the morning session at Archer Elementary School. (Schools for Black students in Charleston, like those in Columbia, were so crowded they had to hold double sessions.) Her afternoons were devoted to community service. Ms. Clark became president of the Gamma Xi Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) sorority, a service organization of Black collegiate women. She served as president of the city’s Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and was chair of the Coming Street YWCA, the city’s Black branch, which provided recreation, kindergarten, and services for working Black women.

In 1950, the Coming Street YWCA invited Elizabeth Waring to speak at its annual meeting. Many white Charlestonians hated Elizabeth Waring and her husband, Judge Julius Waties Waring, because of his court rulings--that South Carolina schools should equalize pay for Black and white teachers, that Black students should be able to attend a state law school, and that Blacks must be allowed to vote in Democratic primaries. Additionally, the Warings had fallen in love while married to others; Judge Waring’s first wife was a prominent Charlestonian. The scandal gave most whites another reason to despise the Warings, besides the couple’s outspoken opposition to white supremacy.

When Charleston newspapers announced Elizabeth Waring would be speaking to a Black audience on Coming Street, members of the white Society Street YWCA were uneasy. Fearing controversy, the white Y members asked the Coming Street Y to disinvite Mrs. Waring. Instead of complying with this request, Septima Clark called on the Warings in their Meeting Street home and encouraged Elizabeth Waring to give the speech, which she did. Waring told the Coming Street Y audience that white Southerners were “sick, confused, and decadent people.” She urged Blacks to vote and stand up for their rights, saying, “You are building and creating. The White Supremacists are destroying and withholding.” Waring’s words seemed so radical that when Clark’s mother heard them at the event, she collapsed.

Newspaper coverage of the speech heightened the animosity most whites felt for the Warings, but Septima Clark and other Black leaders became friends with the couple, who frequently invited them to dine at their home. Clark later mused that the Warings’ invitations may have improved her own standing among more affluent Blacks. In any case, these social events crossed a color line, since Blacks were expected to enter whites’ homes only as servants, never as guests. Clark was pleased when Elizabeth Waring accepted Clark’s invitation to tea at her Henrietta Street home, even though Mrs. Poinsette, mistrustful of whites, refused to come out of her room during the visit. Meanwhile, elected officials and white citizens continued calling for the Warings to leave the state. They did leave in 1952, moving to New York after threats and physical attacks on their Charleston home, but they remained lifelong friends with Clark and other Black leaders.

Allies also were at work elsewhere in the South. In 1952 the director of the Coming Street Y, Ms. Anna Kelly, attended a workshop on school desegregation in Monteagle, TN at the Highlander Folk School, a training center for social activists. Kelly reported on the event to Clark, who went to Highlander in summer 1954. Clark was “really surprised” by this organization’s integrated workshops, at which “a white woman would sleep in the same room that I slept in, or eat at the same table.” Highlander’s grassroots approach to social change was in keeping with Clark’s philosophy of educating people to make their own decisions and fight their own battles. She recruited other Lowcountry leaders to attend Highlander, and in 1955, she was hired to lead summer workshops. At one workshop, two Black Lowcountry leaders, Esau Jenkins and Bernice Robinson, began planning an education center for illiterate adults on Johns Island--a “citizenship school” that would later become the model for programs across the South.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled school desegregation unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education, a case that included an NAACP lawsuit against a South Carolina school board. Few whites in the South supported this ruling; instead, most were horrified at another attack on segregation and white supremacy, which they called “the southern way of life.” South Carolina KKK chapters gained hundreds of new members at meetings patrolled by state troopers. Southern communities also formed all-white “Citizens’ Councils” to maintain segregation, albeit in less overtly violent ways. To the Charleston News and Courier, the Charleston Citizens’ Council contained “the best people,” but Charleston’s NAACP president Joe Brown called it “the tuxedo gang of the Ku Klux Klan.”

In 1956, South Carolina barred city, county, or state employees from belonging to the NAACP. Many Black educators felt they had no choice but to withdraw their NAACP membership, but Clark and a handful of other teachers refused to do so. In May 1956, she was fired by the Charleston school district. She contacted hundreds of colleagues, asking them to protest, but only five showed up for a meeting at the superintendent’s office. Years later, Clark reflected, “I think I tried to push them into something they weren’t ready for. . . .You always have to get the people with you. You can’t just force them into things.” Other Black Charlestonians feared backlash if they supported Clark publicly. That December, when her AKA sorority held an appreciation dinner for Clark, only a few members would pose for a photograph with her. “If they had, they would have lost their jobs,” she recalled.

Highlander hired Clark to work full-time as the center’s director of workshops in 1956. White allies at Highlander also faced opposition. State officials in Tennessee opposed the center because of its interracial, pro-integration gatherings, and they temporarily shut down Highlander in 1961. This setback did not stop Clark’s work. Instead, she began implementing another citizenship education program on behalf of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Images

Coming Street YWCA, 106 Coming Street
Coming Street YWCA, 106 Coming Street The Coming Street Young Women’s Christian Association was here for over a century; an earlier house was replaced by this building in 1964. This YWCA was run by Black civic leaders, including Septima Clark.
Black and white photograph of AKA banquet. SPC marked with an 'x'. 1945.
Black and white photograph of AKA banquet. SPC marked with an 'x'. 1945. Banquet for Gamma Xi Omega, the Charleston chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, 1945. Septima Clark is marked with an “X” in this photograph. She later became president of this chapter. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
At the home of Robert and Mamie fields. S.C. Federation of Women and Girls Clubs
At the home of Robert and Mamie fields. S.C. Federation of Women and Girls Clubs Septima Clark, 1948, standing, at the home of Robert and Mamie Fields, during a meeting of the South Carolina Federation of Women’s and Girls’ Clubs, 1948. Fields (1888-1987) also grew up in downtown Charleston and taught on Johns Island before becoming a leader of organizations that promoted racial uplift and community service. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
Black and white photograph of the Y.W.C.A. of Greater Charleston property at 106 Coming Street.
Black and white photograph of the Y.W.C.A. of Greater Charleston property at 106 Coming Street. The Y. W. C. A. at 106 Coming Street was the Black branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association. The Coming Street Y provided recreation, kindergarten, and services for working Black women. Septima Clark served as chair of the board of this branch in the 1950s. This building was the location of an explosive 1954 speech by white ally Elizabeth Waring, the wife of Judge Waties Waring. The Warings became important allies of Clark and other Black Charlestonians in the 1950s. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
Black and white photograph of Mrs. Giles Brown, Annual Meeting Speaker, Hattie Watson, Septima P. Clark, and Lucille Williams. 1952.
Black and white photograph of Mrs. Giles Brown, Annual Meeting Speaker, Hattie Watson, Septima P. Clark, and Lucille Williams. 1952. 1952 program at the Annual Meeting of the Coming Street Y. W. C. A. Mrs. Giles Brown, speaker, is left of Hattie Watson, Septima P. Clark, and Lucille Williams. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
Septima Clark, early 1950s
Septima Clark, early 1950s Septima Clark, early 1950s Source: Avery Research Center
News and Courier 1954 “NAACP has dinner for Judge Waring”
News and Courier 1954 “NAACP has dinner for Judge Waring” Elizabeth Waring’s plans to speak at the Black Y. W. C. A made news in Charleston. Many whites in South Carolina already hated Judge Waties Waring for his rulings that struck down state policies that discriminated against Blacks in education and voting rights. Source: Charleston News and Courier , Two Star ed., 7 Nov. 1954, p. 8. NewsBank.
“Southern Whites ‘Sick, Confused,' U.S. Judge’s Wife Says in Speech.”
“Southern Whites ‘Sick, Confused,' U.S. Judge’s Wife Says in Speech.” Elizabeth Waring was eager for newspapers to report her speech to the Coming Street Y. W. C. A. She castigated Southern whites for maintaining Jim Crow segregation, and said to the Black audience members, “You are building and creating. The White Supremacists are destroying and withholding.” Source: Charleston News and Courier, Tuesday January 17, 1950.
Clark with Warings, Colliers Magazine
Clark with Warings, Colliers Magazine Septima Clark, far left, sits next to Ruby Cornwell at a dinner at the home of Elizabeth and Waties Waring. This photograph was published in Collier’s magazine in a 195x article about Judge Waring’s unpopularity among whites, entitled “The Loneliest Man in Town.” While white animosity toward the couple grew, especially following Mrs. Waring’s speech at the Coming Street Y, Clark and other Black leaders developed a friendship with the couple in a time when few white Charlestonians would ever consider socializing with Black people as equals. Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.
News article reporting state ban on employee being NAACP members
News article reporting state ban on employee being NAACP members In 1956, the state of South Carolina, along with many other Southern states, decreed that no city, county, and state employees could keep their jobs if they were NAACP members. Septima Clark refused to disavow her membership in May 1956 and was fired, along with four other Charleston teachers. Source: Charleston Evening post, March 13, 1956, p 1.
Photograph of Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander in 1955.
Photograph of Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander in 1955. Septima Clark and Rosa Parks, Highlander Folk School, 1955. Clark first learned of Highlander through the director of the Coming Street Y, who had attended a workshop there in 1952. When Clark went to Highlander in 1953, she experienced for the first time the Center’s approach to living and learning together. Participants of different races came together to discuss solving local community problems, including racial issues. Clark had never experienced these kinds of discussions, nor had she lived for several days in the same dormitory rooms, or eaten meals at the same table, with whites. Clark soon began working for Highlander during the summers, and one of her students was Rosa Parks. Clark encouraged the shy Parks to speak up in workshops about her experiences in Montgomery, and a few months later, Parks was at the center of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, after refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Source: Mrs. Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander Folk School, Monteagle, Tennessee.1955. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2015652115/.
Black and white photograph of Lucille Poinsette, Ruby Cornwell, Septima P. Clark, E. B. Burroughs at the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority testimonial dinner for Clark. 1956.
Black and white photograph of Lucille Poinsette, Ruby Cornwell, Septima P. Clark, E. B. Burroughs at the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority testimonial dinner for Clark. 1956. Three sorority members (sorors) in Alpha Kappa Alpha pose with Septima Clark at a banquet they held in her honor in 1956. Clark had recently been fired from her teaching job after she had refused to disavow her membership in the NAACP. Only Lucille Poinsette, Ruby Cornwell, and E. B. Burroughs were willing to pose with Clark for this photograph. Clark was hurt, but she also understood that many sorors believed that if they’d been photographed with her, “they would have lost their jobs.” Source: Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC.

Location

Coming Street YWCA

Metadata

Julia Eichelberger and Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes, “Allies: Crossing the Color Line with Septima Clark, 1947-1956,” Discovering Our Past: College of Charleston Histories, accessed March 1, 2024, https://discovering.cofc.edu/items/show/62.