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.
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.
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.
The district built Beck a decade after U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that segregated systems were unconstitutional. It opened eight years after federal troops escorted nine black students into a school in Little Rock, Arkansas, and two years after a judge had approved black student transfers to all-white schools in Charleston.
When the county finally moved, it was black Greenville that did the majority of the moving.
It was the black community that performed the heavy lifting of public-school integration after decades of bearing the burden of legally enforced segregation.
Some 12,000 students received transfer-assignment letters just days before the change. The district moved students and faculty to achieve a 80% white, 20% black makeup, a formula calculated to reflect Greenville’s population at the time.
Some 60% of the black student population were reassigned. Only 10% of the white students were.
That meant black seniors ordered rings for graduating classes that never walked across the stage. Majorettes no longer had a band to lead. It meant championship basketball teams disbanded mid-season.
Integration cut homes and neighborhood streets in half. A son would go to one school, a daughter to another. Students on the left of the street would have to board a bus to a school on one side of town; students on the right side would board a bus that took them the other direction.
Those were the homes and streets Ernest, then a Michigan State freshman football recruit, returned to in 1970.
He found his name was still on the walls at Beck, but the walls were not the same.
A top student was tested when school integration finally took place
On Feb. 17, 1970, the white students sat in the first rows of the English literature classroom. Barbara Franklin, their new classmate reassigned from Beck, slid into a seat directly behind them.
Barbara was just months away from her graduation, and she always sat in the front of the class. She worked as a phone operator on weeknights and weekends to pay her senior fees. Barbara had a cap and gown she would never wear. She had a Beck diploma cover she would never use.
Barbara was among the first students to walk Beck’s halls in 1965, and she held her head high. She wanted to do her best because she believed she had the best.
South Carolina built at least 700 schools for black students in the 1950s and 1960s, a $214 million investment in the newly unconstitutional separate-but-equal system. These facilities may have been new, but the facilities were never supported equally by district leadership. Beck was one of them.
Eight days before Beck became an integrated middle school, district workers upgraded the school entrance, an unsightly gateway of concrete and rubber. They covered it with a green carpet.
Barbara lived so close to Beck she could watch the Beck Panthers football team from her backyard. Still, Barbara never cut through the grass to get to class in the morning or home in the afternoon. Some of her classmates teased.
She always took the long way around. She took the right route. The respectful one, she thought.
In those early Beck days, Barbara hauled her math book home even if she didn’t have homework. She was not the best math student, but she had the best teacher. He bounced around his room. His energy electrified.
She wanted to be just like him, and she wasn’t going to wait.
After school, Barbara cut brown bags into pieces and taped them on a wall in her house. She gathered her younger siblings for a class they didn’t enroll in.
She’d open the crisp binding of her math book. She wrote the problems on her board made of paper.
During the first period of the first day at integrated J.L. Mann High School, a woman Barbara didn’t know read the roll call for the new class.
The English teacher then turned to the Beck transfers.
“Who is supposed to be the cream of the crop?” the teacher said.
One of Barbara’s Beck classmates spoke.
“We all are,” he said.
“We’ll see,” the teacher said.
She passed out a test only to the Beck transfers. Despite years of hard work at Beck, despite years of doing things the right way, Barbara had to prove her worth to a stranger.
She took the test. The teacher never returned the graded papers.
A championship team dethroned
The five boys walked across the gym in a school named for a Confederate soldier. The transfers’ jersey colors were now gray and red. Their team now answered to the Mighty Generals.
The rest of the basketball players already sat on the bleachers. This was the first time the Wade Hampton High School team, assembled midway through the season, shared a court for practice.
Two of the new students, including Clyde Mayes, played their final game for Beck the week before. The other three came from Washington High School, a black school that no longer existed.
At Beck’s final game, winning was not the only goal. Led by Clyde, the team made a promise to that gymnasium, to the 1,500 students, parents, teachers, neighbors cheering on their feet that Friday night.
They pledged to all of Nicholtown to score 100 points, about 20 points more than they averaged. This was the last game these boys, defending state champions boasting an 18-1 record, would ever play together.
The teammates received transfer letters to three different Greenville schools that week.
Clyde, the 6-foot-7-inch star junior who averaged 22 points and 26 rebounds, was assigned to Wade Hampton. His older sister’s letter said J.L. Mann. His mother went before a judge to argue, without success, that her children should go to the same integrated high school.
With minutes to go in the final Beck game, the team’s tally stalled at 94.
Mayes could help score six more points. He was sure of it.
He’d scored a thousand on the dirt court in his neighbor’s yard. He’d scored a thousand more at the pick-up games he played at Beck before he was even in high school.
And he would score again here, one last time.
When the clock read zero, the scoreboard said 102. But then, the cheers hushed. The crowd fell silent.
The game was done. Tears fell because it was all over.
The Wade Hampton gym was quiet, too, that February day, when Clyde walked onto his new home court. He couldn’t hear anything but the sound of shoes meeting a wooden floor.
Clyde made his way to the stands to join his team and his coach.
He sat down between two of the white players and waited to begin again.
► The Beck High School building no longer exists. Sterling School now stands on the former Beck property.
► Ernest Hamilton graduated from Michigan State University before attending University of South Carolina law school. He is a lawyer in Greenville. Like when they were boys, Ernest and Clyde Mayes are still neighbors and friends.
► Barbara Franklin finished high school from home. Franklin now works as a caregiver in Greenville. She is helping plan a 50th anniversary for the 1970 Beck High School seniors.
► Clyde Mayes and the Wade Hampton Mighty Generals basketball team won back-to-back state championships. Mayes played for Furman University and in the NBA, and he played on professional teams in Italy, Spain and France.
Sources: The story is based on 2020 interviews with Barbara Franklin, Donna Byers, Clyde Mayes, Ernest Hamilton and Jon Hale, a University of South Carolina associate professor. Additional information came from The Greenville News archives, the work of Stephen O’Neill at Furman University, Greenville County Historical Society, University of Kentucky research and “The Mighty Generals” by Mike Chibbaro.