Fort Jackson Elementary School led the way in desegregation
September 6, 2013
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- In 1963, William Fry was a gangly fifth-grade student with no real understanding of how the world was changing around him. Public schools in South Carolina were still segregated, a policy that had ceased to apply to Department of Defense schools a decade earlier.
At the time, though, there were no schools on Fort Jackson, forcing students to attend classes off post. Fry said he never gave much thought to why he went to a different school than the black children his age. That was life, he said, and those differences were beyond the control of any fifth-grade student.
But, adults on post were aware of the inequality of segregated schools, and were not happy with the situation.
"At the time, the military was very much integrated," Fry said, "but a lot of the black parents were getting upset that their children were going to a black school outside of Columbia, while the white students were going to Andrew Jackson Elementary School right outside the gates. There was a pretty rapid decision by the powers that be on Fort Jackson to build a school on post and integrate it."
The proposed school materialized quickly, he said. The process from concept to construction took roughly seven months, and Fry was among the first children to take part in integrated education in South Carolina. The first school year for Fort Jackson Elementary School began Sept. 3, 1963, a week after Martin Luther King shared his dream of a better America on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
"I don't remember why it didn't register to me that some of these kids didn't go to school with me in the fourth grade," Fry said. "That was my first year on post, which was kind of a blur to me, and it didn't occur to me that my black friend down the street didn't go to school with me."
Fort Jackson Elementary School was the first elementary school in the state to offer classes to both white and black students. The school opened with nine teachers, including one black teacher and one Hispanic teacher, and 245 students in grades one through six. Fry said the school year started like any other and was free of the tensions and conflict surrounding the integration of other schools in South Carolina as they were slowly integrated during the following years.
"The school opened with no problems, and everything went very smoothly," he said.
Integration was hardly a novelty for the children living on post, since housing was already integrated. If anything, the population of the new school better represented the community in which they lived. While many states prohibited segregation, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education deemed those laws to be unconstitutional.
But, a year earlier in 1953, the government required all DoD schools on military installations to be integrated no later than Sept. 1, 1955.
"There was no mention that it was a historic moment," Fry said. "It wasn't until 45 years later that I realized the importance of the event. And, two months later, we were dealing with the assassination of President Kennedy, which I remember vividly."
For Fry, the new school also prompted a relationship that would change his life forever. While the school wasn't budgeted to pay for the salary of a music teacher, the school's principal, Thomas Silvester, was a musician, and gladly stepped up to the task of adding a little music to the curriculum.
"This was a very small school," he said. "They had all of eight or nine classrooms at the time, and teachers had to double as a P.E. coach and what have you. Silvester, the principal, was a musician and very young at the time, as far as principals go. He started a band program in my sixth grade year."
The experience was inspirational enough to start Fry on the path of becoming a music instructor, himself. Today, Fry lives in Columbus, Ga.
"After moving away from Fort Jackson, I went on to be in a high school marching band, and went on to teach music for 36 years," he said. "It's all because of Mr. Silvester starting that school band at Fort Jackson. He basically gave me a life and a career."
Fort Jackson Elementary School was later renamed Hood Street Elementary School, and closed its doors in 2007. Today, the location is used as the U.S. Army Signal Network Enterprise Center. A historic marker to commemorate the history of the building was unveiled in 2010.