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A Champion of Humanity

Posted On December 31, 2018

A recipient of the Governor’s Award in 2015, Dr. Valinda Littlefield has achieved international recognition for her efforts in broadening S.C.’s knowledge of African American achievements and history

By WARREN HUGHES

When Black History Month is celebrated in February, noted USC professor Dr. Valinda Littlefield deserves great recognition of her own for her role in teaching, researching and commemorating African American achievements.

Littlefield is a scholar of the history of women, African Americans and education with an emphasis on southern African American women and African American history from 1877 to the present. Her book on southern African American women school teachers during the Jim Crow era will be published by the University of Illinois Press.     

In 2015, Littlefield received a Governor’s Award bestowed by South Carolina Humanities. In receiving the award, she was called “a champion for the humanities in the Palmetto State.” 

Littlefield has worked on numerous oral history projects focusing on the state’s African American experiences. She has also been the lead historian for the Teach American History Project in multiple South Carolina school districts and has worked tirelessly with public school teachers to deepen the historical knowledge of South Carolinians. Internationally recognized in her field, she is the author of numerous scholarly articles and is a frequent invited speaker and consultant.  

She is coeditor of the three-volume series, South Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times along with historians Marjorie Spruill, a colleague at USC, and Joan Marie Johnson of Northeastern Illinois University. “Teachers are using the essays to create lesson plans to tell the stories of these women. It’s gratifying to know that school teachers are using these materials and that the state’s social studies standards have been updated as a result,” she said. 

Littlefield says while she has many favorite stories, the profiles she wrote for the series on Ruby Forsythe and Fannie Phelps Adams, African American school teachers in the Jim Crow era, are deeply personal. “These were two women who by all measure had little to nothing. They were not born into wealth and had limited access to education and resources,” Littlefield said. “You think about what they had to do in a time that said they couldn’t do it. But they molded a future generation for voting and desegregation. They helped students to understand that they were important and intelligent and that there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do. They helped them see that the sky is the limit and provided the tools needed to confront Jim Crow.”

In a recent interview, Littlefield refers to a November 2018 series in the Charleston Post and Courier on public education in South Carolina. She was quoted in the series on how vestiges of the Jim Crow era still plague schools today.

As the series noted, “In the 19th Century, the state barred enslaved black children from learning how to write. In the 20th Century’s Jim Crow era, the Legislature battled against integrating schools as white families fled to private segregation academies. And in the 21st Century, after fighting the longest legal battle in state history to fend off a lawsuit from its poorest school districts, the Legislature essentially disregarded the state Supreme Court’s 2014 order to repair deep and persistent inequalities.”

“Today, six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated education inherently unequal, almost half of the state’s public schools still are made up of students of predominantly one race or another. In a state where race and income track closely, that creates huge — and growing — disparities among schools,” according to an article in the series.

In her comments for the Post and Courier, Littlefield said, “You have recent generations of people who didn’t have wholesale access to high school. We’re not talking about a long time ago. Wholesale access to high school for African Americans did not happen until the 1970s.”

Most of the state’s struggling school districts fall along a path of historic inequities, a line of poor, disproportionately black communities that run through 160 miles of South Carolina's Coastal Plane — the infamous "Corridor of Shame" from Dillon at the North Carolina line to Allendale, near Georgia.

Today, South Carolinians can still draw inspiration from African American leaders like teachers Forsyth and Adams and Robert Small, born a slave in 1839 in Beaufort who served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. They all are timeless examples of people who make a historic difference.

“At certain times people with backbone, with courage and with vision come to the forefront. It’s very important that people do that and stand up for what they feel is right,” she said in speaking of Small’s contributions. “Here is a person who valued his freedom, a person who valued people who did not look like him, a person who valued equality, who thought about people with less access than he had. We need to learn those lessons over and over again.” 

His contributions demonstrate the importance of understanding and appreciating key figures in history. “We need to be reminded of those lessons. They are extremely important if we are going to have a society that promotes not only equality but also simply a moral obligation to treat your fellow man like a human being. That is extremely important in a society that is going to continue to live and produce and make a difference,” she said. “After all, South Carolina would not have gained universal education during Reconstruction had it not been for Smalls and other leaders like him.”

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