Ninety years ago–to mark the 50th anniversary of South Carolina’s official assumption of education as a public responsibility–Henry T. Thompson published The Establishment of the Public School System of South Carolina (R. L. Bryan, 1927). This overview was primarily a paean to his father, Hugh S. Thompson, who had been South Carolina’s third superintendent of education (1876-1882) and later governor (1882-1886) of the Palmetto State.
Despite his filial affection, Thompson took time to review the efforts of the superintendent who preceded his father, Justus Jillson. Thompson described Jillson as a man of “intelligence and education,” as well as one of the few “honest carpetbaggers” (p. 12). Regardless of his honesty, Jillson’s efforts were “in vain” because (according to Thompson), “in no department of the state government were the evils of the carpetbagger-negro domination more acute than in the administration of the state’s educational system.” That system was one of “vast fraud” and “a disgrace to civilization” (p. 12).
While it is true that there was some malfeasance in the Reconstruction governments of the American South (at the time, no state government in America was bereft of corruption), Thompson adduced little proof that South Carolina’s Department of Education was guilty of “vast fraud.” Indeed, Thompson (also the author of Ousting the Carpetbagger from South Carolina [R. L. Bryan, 1926]) tipped his hand when he added the following: “Jillson made himself very obnoxious to the white people of the state by his persistent advocacy of social equality, and of mixed schools for the two races as a means to that end. His insistence on the enforced equality of the races was conspicuous in an otherwise commendable career” (p. 14).
Thankfully, that form of conspicuousness is no longer considered a liability, even if we still don’t provide equal educational opportunities to all children.