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End of segregation meant these students had to move

GREENVILLE, S.C. – He was just a boy then, but he could see something the grown couldn’t.

Maybe because when boys are boys and girls are girls, the eyes are wide enough to see the whole sky. Or they are close enough to the ground to spot the beginnings, the tiny roots of things. Maybe because youth is not an age but a lens.

When Ernest Hamilton watched the trees topple in the forest, he watched the trees topple for him. When the earth behind his Nicholtown house moved, the earth moved for him. When he watched cement and metal and glass rise from the clearing, the building was built for him.

When the doors opened and the walls became 40 classrooms, a 600-seat auditorium, a gym for 1,500, the school still appeared to be for him and him alone.

Joseph E. Beck High School belonged to Ernest, and Ernest belonged to Beck. They shared a foundation.

The first graduating class of Beck High School is pictured in this photograph displayed in a Beck yearbook.

Just as he watched the school’s making from his backyard, the school watched him being made. A boy built up, brick by brick, into a leader in the classroom and on the football field.

When Ernest graduated in 1969, he didn’t leave Beck. He scratched his initials in hallway corners. He scrawled his full name on the wall outside the basketball courts.

He was to be there, always.

But Beck’s time lasted only a few months more.

On Feb. 17, 1970, Beck became a middle school. It was open as a high school for just five years.

Ernest Hamilton wears his Beck High School letterman jacket in his home. Hamilton graduated from Beck in 1969, the last graduating class and part of the first group of students that attended Beck from freshman year to senior year.

The demotion was part of a court-mandated integration plan finalized and executed in a matter of weeks. Tens of thousands of books and furniture and supplies shifted over one long weekend in February – the middle of the school year.

A judge’s order meant that Greenville, a city in the state that was the second-to-last in the U.S. to desegregate, could operate only integrated schools. Greenville was the last major district in South Carolina to do so, and with 58,000 students, it was one of the largest in the nation.

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Brett Gonzalez
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