One day last spring, Lorin Peri Palmer trolled back 40 years in her memory and explained what it was like to be 9 and the human face of a social experiment called integration.
With a tape recorder running, Palmer recounted the silent looks and solitary lunches she endured as the first Black girl at Sumter’s Millwood Elementary School.
“We would go out on the playground and get on the monkey bars, and everyone would flee,” she said, recounting the events of 1966.
Each night, her mother, Theodis “Theo” Palmer McMahon, would coach her on her small part in upending segregation, recounting sacrifices of other Black women, from Harriet Tubman to Mary McLeod Bethune.
“It was like a mission,” McMahon said. “It may have damaged her a little, but it had to be done.”
Now, historians at University of South Carolina and South Carolina State University are on a different kind of mission: to chronicle the civil rights era by collecting the oral histories of ordinary people like Palmer. It is time, they say, for people to step forward and tell their stories.
As the tape wound that spring day, Palmer and McMahon discovered other shared memories: of civil rights leaders camping out in their Sumter home, of their late husband and father, Robert J. Palmer, collecting money to bail demonstrators out of jail.
It was all wonderful stuff to Marvin Lare, the man behind this particular tape recorder.
Lare, a retired United Methodist minister and public policy advocate, has made it his business to collect memories of a time of school desegregation battles, marches and sit-ins.
The urgency is palpable. As the civil rights era passes into history and those who battled for civil rights grow older, historians say it is time to record the witnesses to that history.
“It’s like the World War II generation,” Lare said. “They are passing from the scene.”
Lare, who is associated with the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, has spent the past two years collecting 90 oral histories, many from people in their 80s and 90s. He anticipates taping several dozen more.
At South Carolina State in Orangeburg, history professor William Hine has spent years collecting interviews for a planned history of the historically Black college.
“It’s been kind of in fits-and-starts over the years, but it has been worthwhile, because several people I interviewed in the 1980s are gone now,” Hine said.
His interviews include the late John Wrighten, who filed suit to gain admittance to the white law school at USC.
U.S. District Judge J. Waties Waring ruled in Wrighten’s favor in 1947, ordering the state to admit him or build a law school he could attend. Rather than integrate, the Legislature established a law school at S.C. State that operated until the 1960s.
Hine has been instrumental in keeping alive the memories of three students slain during the 1968 demonstrations known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
“I still think there is a legacy that the civil rights movement wasn’t as significant because it didn’t have the confrontation and violence that Mississippi and Alabama had,” Hine said. “In fact, the oral histories will reveal that a lot more occurred in South Carolina than many people realize.”
Lare said he discovered that while traveling South Carolina in search of people he calls “civil and human rights champions.”
“For almost everybody, when you turn on the tape recorder, it just gushes out,” Lare said. “You know these stories have been on their hearts.”
That was how it was with Palmer, who now runs the family’s Sumter funeral home, Palmer Memorial Chapel, and her mother, a Missouri native who desegregated the YWCA of the Upper Lowlands, serving as its executive director since 1965.
Outside of family, Palmer had rarely spoken of the four years she attended public schools, of the time she barricaded herself in her parents’ bedroom to temporarily escape going to school. But she knows it changed her.
“It built character and made me who I am today,” said Palmer, who finished high school at the private, all-Black Mather Academy in Camden and went on to Duke University. “The activism is still there. I still have that kind of fire under the surface.”
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