Dr. Millicent Ellison Brown, activist-historian currently living in Charleston, is a retired professor of history from North Carolina A&T State University. She received a doctorate from Florida State University, completing her Ph.D. thesis on the history of civil rights activism in Charleston from 1940 to 1970; other professional roles have included professorships at Bennett College, Guilford College, Claflin University, and she has served as Director of Exhibits and Museum Education at the Avery Research Center at College of Charleston.
In 1963, Millicent Brown became the lead plaintiff in a NAACP-sponsored lawsuit to desegregate the Charleston public schools where she would become one of the “first children” to desegregate public schools in our state: specifically, she was one of two African American students to enroll at Rivers High School. Dr. Brown’s father, J. Arthur Brown, was the local and state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; she credits having been born into an activist household during the height of the civil rights movement for her lifelong commitment to progressive social change, supplemented by her years of community service as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her career has been devoted to addressing misconceptions of school desegregation, introducing a more thoughtful consideration of Briggs v Elliott and the Brown decision, and engaging students and faculty in appreciating connections between the school desegregation process and the current crisis in black education today. Knowing the deeply personal struggles of “first children” and recognizing that many of these students who sought to desegregate schools during the 1960s had been overlooked, in 2006 she initiated “Somebody Had To Do It,” a collaborative, multi-institutional project to identify and collect oral histories from individuals who were the first black students to desegregate all-white schools during the twentieth century civil rights movement.
The University of South Carolina Museum of Education
Chester C. Travelstead Award for Courage in Education
presented to Millicent E. Brown
in recognition of her leadership in South Carolina to further the values of integrity, intellectual spirit, justice, and stewardship and, in so doing, allowing schools to become more compassionate, more generous, more humane, and more thoughtful.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Maya Angelou
Dr. Millicent E. Brown’s 2017 Travelstead Award Acceptance Speech
“Let me say that I humbly accept this award but, as I always do, it is in the name of all of those original plaintiffs: Millicent Brown, et. al., included eleven children who in 1963 ventured into the previously all white schools, the first in the state. But the judge ruled that only the original plaintiffs could go in in 1963. And I have this available (documentation) for those who may want to look at the other ten students. But it was never about just me; it was always about that first group of eleven.
“When I heard about coming today for this award, I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if Professor Travelstead was with me because we are ironically celebrating the accomplishments of the women’s basketball team from the University of South Carolina for winning the NCAA Championship. And I thought would he share with me what I consider to be somewhat of a complex situation in time. Because to play basketball and to become a Dawn Staley or an A’ja Wilson, I’m sure there were moments when they were high school players and may have just had a bad day and might have been in a bad mood or tired. And I’m so glad they didn’t go to Spring Valley High School. Because as a rogue cop disguised as a school resource officer, a young kind of out-of-it, bad-mood youngster was accosted and thrown across the room by this individual. And I thought if that had been Dawn Staley, who knows where the University of South Carolina might or might not be right.
“And so I raised that because I want to share with you concern moreso than criticism. But when that incident happened a stone’s-throw away from this university, I said we have a School of Law, we have a School of Education, we have a School of Social Work, we have a Department of Psychology, a Department of Sociology. Where is this outcry coming; where is this defense of this young woman? And I would say this if I were talking to Allen or Benedict or Claflin or Francis Marion or College of Charleston or Clemson; it doesn’t matter. I am saying we in education have got to stand up in the Travelstead tradition. And when we see injustice being done, we’ve got to stand up in our professional stances and say ‘not in our name. That’s not how we educate. That’s not what we teach our students.’
“So, I ask you, I beg you to in the spirit of a great man like Mr. Travelstead that we all commit today that we will not let in our name those kinds of incidences to happen anymore. And we will let it be known that we do not approve; we don’t want to look the other way. We have an obligation. I believe that one of the statements that the professor made said that children learn from everything they see and hear by observation of our words and deeds, and I strongly believe that. Thank you so much.”
The Travelstead Incident
“Here and now, in the summer of 1955, we find ourselves faced with the necessity of making many momentous decisions with respect to the schools in this country. Perhaps at no other time in the history of education has so great a sense of gravity and urgency characterized the action concerning schools which is being taken and which must be taken in the near future.”
This statement from a speech, “Today’s Decision for Tomorrow’s Schools,” by the Dean of the USC College of Education, Chester C. Travelstead, expressed his support for the Brown and Briggs v Elliott decisions. Travelstead went on to say, “Education takes place in many ways. Our children can be educated to deceit and chicanery, as well as they can be educated to integrity and loyalty. This education, of course, is not confined to the schools or homes. These children learn from everything they see and hear. In this crucial matter which faces us all in 1955, our children will learn much by observation of our words and deeds.”
Three weeks later, he received a letter from the USC Board of Trustees dismissing him from the university. He was subsequently hired by the University of New Mexico as dean of education, and Newsweek magazine, in 1955, reported, “the president of the New Mexico institution, said: ‘Dr. Travelstead’s troubles in South Carolina were more of a recommendation than an indictment.’” Travelstead stayed for the remainder of his career at the University of New Mexico, ultimately serving as the provost of that institution.
Reflecting upon this incident in 1983, Dr. Travelstead wrote, “What happened to me personally in South Carolina in 1955 is not highly important—except to me; but it was both illustrative and symbolic of the turmoil in the Deep South at mid-century. And this event, if put in proper perspective, could serve as a warning about what can and does happen to people when the rights, hopes, and opportunities for any group—or for even one person—are thwarted or violated. As for me, I hold no bitterness toward any individual or group of individuals in the Deep South.”