On a fog covered morning in late fall, the sun begins to rise just above the trees and construction sites that line Septima Clark Parkway. Its rays seem to end abruptly on Fishburne Street, right on the doorsteps of Burke High School. For just a brief moment, as the sun continues its ascent into the sky above, Burke’s brick walls shimmer like gold in the clutches of the rays. And for those few seconds the much beleaguered school is golden once again. A single, yellow bus idles in front of the building as a handful of students trickle off and into the school. Other students, seemingly less than a dozen, slowly trudge onto the campus. The rising sun ushers in the promise of a fresh start for the 100 plus year-old school, where failing test scores, low enrollment, and empty facilities continue to cast a shadow.
For the faculty, staff, and students at Burke, surely these days can’t be taken lightly. Just a few years ago, Burke was on the cusp of being taken over by the state for its “failing grades.” There have been calls to close its doors and reopen Burke as a new school, with a new name and new students who don’t resemble those of Burke’s illustrious past. Still others have sought to get rid of the school entirely and replace it with some other sort of commercial or residential development.
But Burke still stands.
“I know for a fact there were outside interests to take over Burke and turn it into something different,” says Dr. Barbara Dilligard, a well-respected, retired teacher from Burke who once attended the school and later graduated from C.A. Brown High School. “But we are fighting to keep that from happening.”
For many Charlestonians, Burke’s plight is just background noise akin to the sounds of the omnipresent construction and street repairs in a city that is bursting at its seams. Unless directly affected, either forcibly or by chance, Burke’s struggle is a simple footnote in life. But Burke is much more than that. It is an integral part of Charleston’s history, and perhaps even a beacon of unity that could one day demonstrate a force of solidarity that is unseen in many other Southern cities.
As often is the case, things don’t matter until someone either brings them to the forefront or something completely disappears. With the recent passing of perhaps Burke High School’s greatest ambassador, the legendary late coach and educator Modie Risher, Burke once again found its way to the front pages, albeit for a sad occasion, in October. Risher was a 1946 graduate of Burke High School. After obtaining his master’s degree and a stint in professional baseball, Risher returned to Charleston and became a P.E. teacher and coach at Burke. Under his leadership the school won a state championship in football. For over three decades, Risher was affiliated with the Bulldogs. He coached basketball, track and field, and other sports as well, and served as athletic director and department chair. Later Risher became a consultant and school evaluator for the South Carolina Department of Education, and even a health and P.E. curriculum writer for CCSD. Risher loved Burke High School and in his passing has somehow managed once again to tilt the spotlight back on his beloved alma mater and a better time for the school.
For those that may not know or have simply forgotten, Burke was once the pride of the African-American community. It once boasted nearly 1,700 students and had 160 members in its band. It is the alma mater of Harvey Gant, the former mayor of Charlotte and the man who integrated Clemson University, as well as other notable alumni. It once even had packed stadiums for football games.
Left out and leftover
Today Stoney Field is an eyesore. Located yards away from the Ashley River and Brittlebank Park, it is in stark contrast to the picturesque views that can be enjoyed from its neighbor, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park. Stoney Field looks forgotten compared to the multi-million dollar stadium that is home to the Charleston RiverDogs. The home to the Burke Bulldogs football team, the track has now faded into the grounds soaked into perpetual mud by the rains and flooding. Even Burke grad and recent U.S. Olympian Raven Saunders couldn’t practice there.
“It’s tough to see Stoney Field in that condition,” says Burke alumni and University of South Carolina graduate Kurt Walker. “Every player who has ever played at Burke has played on that field, without any real upgrades or enhancements, yet Riley stadium is brand new. The Citadel is renovating their stadium. Everything is growing through the beautification process, but Burke seems to be getting left behind.”
Walker, who graduated from Burke in 1987, is right. In a time of robust economic growth and development, Burke seems to be caught in a time warp of sorts; destined to remain frozen in a period that has long since gone. Some may not notice, but Burke’s alumni and those who care, certainly are aware of its condition.
“Stoney Field simply wasn’t a priority in the Riley administration,” says long-serving State Representative Wendell Gilliard. “Stoney Field is owned by the city. Not the county, not the School District, and definitely not the school. The city is responsible for its upkeep and maintenance, yet it has gone neglected.”
As a member of Charleston City Council, Gilliard proposed that the field be given to Charleston County and then turned over to Burke High School. This never happened, but he hasn’t stopped fighting. “I’ve written letters to CCSD Board Superintendent Postlewait, asking that this issue be brought back up,” Gilliard says.
Last September, Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait responded to Gilliard by commissioning an engineering firm to study soil conditions at Stoney Field. “When we get this information, we can reconvene and we will have enough data to consider our options,” Postlewait said at a meeting at City Hall, according to the Post & Courier. Thanks to that study, in August 2016, CCSD approved $1 million in funding from the Phase IV Sales Tax Capital Program (2017-2022) for the Stoney Field Improvements project. And due to additional maintenance from the Parks Department, all but one football game was played on Stoney Field this fall.
In its heyday during the 1980s, Burke was the epicenter of African-American education in a city that was just starting to see its demographic make-up change. Today the school has roughly 340 students with 130 or so of those students enrolled in Simmons-Pinckney Middle School which shares Burke’s campus.
How could this have happened to such a school, right under the noses of Charleston’s residents and its alumni? There are many answers to that question: lack of parental support, failing test scores, administrative changes; the answers vary. But to truly understand where Burke is now, it’s vital to take a look at its past, which inevitably leads to the unearthing of words that eat at the core of the peninsula. Words like: racism, inequality, discrimination, classism, and that dreaded “g” word, gentrification.
“Historically, the plain and ugly truth is that Burke was never meant or intended to succeed by the powers structure to begin with,” says Charleston historian and CofC professor, Damon L. Fordham. A Charlestonian himself, Fordham graduated from Wando High School in the early 1980s and says he watched resources and funding pour into the school east of the Cooper while Burke simultaneously suffered through sub-standard facilities and deteriorating structures.
Dr. Jon Hale, CofC professor and author of the Avery Research Center’s “A History of Burke High School,” writes that in 1894, Reverend John L. Dart opened the Charleston Industrial Institute. It was later known as the Charleston Colored Industrial School and eventually named Burke Industrial School in 1921.
“They chose the industrial track [at Burke] because they believed that it was a waste of time to educate African Americans towards academic careers and then there was also a fear of educating blacks in a city that was predominately black during that time in the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s. Burke was meant to develop a cheap labor force,” Fordham says.
Hale agrees. “Booker T. Washington endorsed the idea of vocational education and he firmly believed it would gradually lead to racial uplift,” says Hale. “Whites supported his idea because it could be used to maintain a cheap labor force. Especially since Du Bois advocated a college education and the training of a ‘Talented Tenth’ who would then push for social, political and economic equality, whites in Charleston favored a Washington model of vocational education. James Anderson in The Education of Blacks in the South provides a history of how white philanthropists in the early 1900s funded vocational programs to keep blacks ‘in their place.'”
For African-American families who wanted a more liberal arts education, they could attend The Avery Normal Institute that provided the college prep courses that Du Bois favored. However, there was a problem. “The education at Avery was private and charged tuition. Therefore, the majority of African-American families in Charleston could not afford it,” says Hale.
But by the mid-20th century, Burke began to move closer to a more liberal arts and college preparatory academic curriculum.
“Burke High School was a matter of planned obsolescence. But in spite of all of that it is a sheer testament to the tenacity of those teachers and students that so many students from Burke have succeeded,” says Fordham.
Fordham is brutally honest and frank as he discusses the history of Burke, which indelibly reaches into the cracks of Charleston’s own schizophrenic past. But Fordham is right. Many students have graduated from Burke and have gone on to prosper around the world.
“Burke has always had good students,” says Walker.
As the ’80s came to a close, many people, including students, began to notice a troubling shift on the horizon. “We knew that something was changing,” says Walker. “I was student council president and I would often meet with Principal Gaillard who told me that in five or six years, Burke would not look like it does now. He said we would be a 3A or even 2A school in that time.”
That something that was changing was gentrification. Its wheels had long been turning, but in the late ’80s the effects were becoming very real as many of Charleston’s African-American population began to leave the peninsula for more affordable housing.
“Mr. Gaillard knew that the enrollments of our feeder schools were dwindling. He was right,” Walker says.
For Burke, gentrification led to low student enrollment which led to loss of programs which led to even lower student enrollment.
The perception problem
Burke had always been a predominately black high school. During the 1980s Charleston’s demographics began a shift that would continue through today as more whites began to move to the peninsula. For many of these new residents, Burke was still perceived as a “black” school and with that title came the perception of low academic standards and sub-par faculty and facilities.
“People believed that we weren’t getting a good education and that simply wasn’t true,” says Walker. “Our AP classes were in place when I graduated in ’87. I left Burke with six AP hours.”
By the late ’80s Burke continued to produce top-notch college-bound students, but it simply could not shake the stigma that dogged it. However, the perception of Burke as a failing school wasn’t limited to the white community.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there,” recalls Azikwe Chandler, a 1989 Burke alum. Like Walker, Chandler and his family relocated to Charleston from Brooklyn, N.Y. when he was in middle school. “When it was time for me to go to high school, I had heard the rumors of fighting and trouble, and I wasn’t sure if it would be the right fit for me academically,” Chandler continues. “But none of it was true.”
Chandler attended the University of Notre Dame and graduated with an undergraduate degree in architecture, later receiving a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from the College of Charleston. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently and also has working knowledge of Kiswahili, Portuguese, and Korean. He credits Burke for setting him on the path of education enrichment and enlightenment.
But Burke’s perception problem was real and as a result, its downward spiral was set in motion.
In 1988 the Charleston County School Board decided that it would start a new Academic Magnet School at Burke. This would integrate the school, while simultaneously increasing its population and thus add to its funding.
“Forced integration never works,” says Walker. “You have to want to be there.”
“It was two totally different schools and this created resentment among some of the students,” adds Chandler who witnessed this integration firsthand. “It seems that every effort was made to keep the Magnet School and Burke students from interacting. There were separate lunch times. Our classes were in different buildings. It wasn’t the feeling of being in school together.”
“There just wasn’t a real effort,” Walker adds. In 1996, the Magnet school relocated and eventually found its new home in North Charleston in 2010. Today it thrives as one of the top schools in the country, while Burke struggles to stay afloat.
In the years that followed, Burke toiled in the doldrums of declining enrollment and failing test scores. As students left the school, funding for programs like chorus, drama, art, and ROTC began to disappear. Though Burke is designated as a “neighborhood school” it was in real trouble, as other options arose.
“School Choice really affected Burke,” says Linard McCloud. McCloud is a lifer at Burke. He graduated in 1972 and attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee before returning to the high school to teach in 1978. He hasn’t left since and is the school’s longtime band director.
“Parents opted out of sending their kids here. We really lost a lot of kids to Military Magnet and Garrett Tech. James Island Charter and West Ashley High School were also places that our students went to. Gentrification hurt us, but School Choice made it worse,” McCloud says.
Burke was reeling on its heels.
Conversations of what to do with the school began. Some called for its closing, which would displace its current students and possibly erase the rich history and tradition the school had always maintained.
Public forums and information sessions were often held to air out grievances. Burke’s alumni rallied to protect their school. Meetings were tense.
In 2015, following a community meeting for Burke, Dr. Millicent Brown, a local activist and professor, told the Post and Courier that she and others wanted to make sure that no student’s well-being was placed above another, “especially for gentrification reasons.” A student at the time was quoted as saying, “They need to come inside our school instead of looking outside in.”
But when the dust cleared Burke was still standing. Albeit on a weakened foundation.
Dr. Barbara Dilligard had volunteered to work on the front lines to save Burke from the perils of so many underperforming schools in the Lowcountry. She wanted to ensure that Burke did not go the way of Lincoln High School in McClellanville or Cainhoy High School in Huger. Together, along with other dedicated and determined Burke alumni, she co-founded the Burke High School foundation, Friends of Burke, in 2008. This foundation is working to preserve the legacy of Burke High School while raising money for scholarships and resources for its students.
What the foundation really wanted was to ensure that Burke would remain open with its name and legacy intact, and that current students would have a school close to their homes.
Dilligard acted as a liaison between frustrated parents, school administrators, and the Charleston County School District, and CCSD later hired her as a consultant.
As the Director of Transition for Burke High School, Dilligard is tasked with bridging the gap between the community and the administrators, including the Charleston County School Board, while also seeing to it that the planned elementary and middle school curriculums are properly implemented to allow Burke to get students that are academically ready for high school.
Charleston County School Board member Michael Miller told the Post and Courier in 2015, “I think the revitalization with Burke has very little do to with Burke itself and has more to do with the district’s inability to produce students at the elementary and middle schools who can do high school work and read on grade level. That’s a district problem Burke just inherits.”
Miller who recently won re-election continued, “I think we’re trying to create a dynamic to make Burke more palatable for some people in our community so they will send their children there. And that’s just window dressing. If we’re really serious about addressing academic issues on the peninsula, let’s have that comprehensive conversation.”
Dilligard and others agree.
“The plan is to have one Executive Principal over Simmons-Pinckney Middle School and Burke High School, with two Associate Principals at each school to assist,” Dilligard says. “Sanders Clyde Elementary has also come on board to be a part of improving this feeder system as well.” Anna Dassing was named Burke’s acting principal in August following the promotion of former Burke principal Maurice Cannon was promoted to CCSD’s Director of Accreditation this summer.
Walker, who works with several programs at Charleston Development Academy and Chandler, a math and science teacher at Charleston Progressive, are also working to improve the pipeline into Burke.
“Burke is in a much better place than it was before,” Dilligard says. “I believe that Superintendent Postlewait is committed to keeping Burke open and effective.”
To this end, the CCSD relocated the Lowcountry Tech Academy to Burke at the start of the 2016-2017 school year, as well as several other programs to entice students to return. “We are dedicated to improving Burke in four major areas,” Dilligard continues. “We want to build the Advanced Academic Placement Academy at Burke.” Burke’s AP Academy, which started in 2008, currently offers five AP courses: Studio Art, Language, Literature, U.S. History, and European History. Dilligard continues, “We want to magnify and build our Fine Arts program. We lost our choir and other art classes, but it’s coming back. We want to increase Career and Technology offerings at the school which we already see with the Lowcountry Tech Academy, the new Culinary Arts Program, the Health Services Program, and others. In total we have eight such programs that we want to build and make stronger. We want to expand the district’s Early College High School Program, which will allow students to take classes at more local colleges [aside from Trident Technical College]. And we want to strengthen our general curriculum.”
Dilligard also points out that State Senator Marlon Kimpson and State Representative Wendell Gilliard have taken special interest in helping Burke thrive. Dilligard adds that Gilliard is part of the team that has plans in the works to improve the athletic facilities at the school, including a potential partnership with The Citadel. “There are talks about possibly sharing The Citadel’s field for football games, among a few other ideas, but we’ll see,” she says.
Burke it seems may well be on its way to reviving its storied past and finding a place in the present and future. But still, despite all of the positives, in an ever-growing world of charter, magnet, private, and specialty schools, Burke it seems is always on a perilously short leash because of perception.
A unifying force
“We want diversity,” asserts Walker. “The alumni have always wanted to see Burke diversify.” His sentiments are echoed by McCloud, Chandler, Dilligard, and others. “But there has to be real honest and open communication about race in Charleston,” Walker adds. “Blacks and whites have to be able to sit down together and want to make Burke work. Together.” Walker doesn’t want people to view Burke as just a black school when he says it’s so much more.
“We want everyone to come to Burke,” adds McCloud. “If they’re musicians, we want them in our band. We want them to be a part of our school. We want people to want to be a part of Burke.”
According to the City of Charleston, approximately 38,000 people live on the peninsula. Every student on the peninsula from Mt. Pleasant Street southward is zoned for Burke, yet the school currently has a population of less than 400 students in the high school alone. According to numbers released by U.S. News and World Report in their annual “Best High Schools in America,” rankings, Burke is 99 percent black. The Post and Courier reported in a story in 2015 that the peninsula is 67 percent white and approximately 28 percent black. Burke was built to accommodate 1,800 students (between the Middle and High School). It’s clear that Charleston’s white and black populations are opting for other options aside from Burke, a school with an amazing 8:1 student to teacher ratio.
But that can change. Walker says one of the things that Burke was known for in its past was its close-knit, family atmosphere. Students felt like faculty members were part of their family. Faculty members taught students as if they were family members. That was a time when teachers lived in the neighborhoods. A shortage of affordable housing options has forced many teachers at Burke to live outside of the peninsula.
“We need to bring the teachers back to the neighborhoods, no matter what Burke looks like,” Walker suggests.
“Everyone can come to Burke,” proclaims Dilligard. “Everyone.”
And therein lies Burke’s potential: as a unifying catalyst for a city that too often is divided in black and white. Perhaps Burke can evolve into a model of a neighborhood school that succeeds for everyone while embracing its history and legacy. Maybe, in some way, Burke can make people truly forget about the imaginary lines that unnecessarily divide us.
“Children don’t have a problem with each other,” says McCloud. “It’s the adults. Adults are the ones with prejudices and these ideas about not getting along. Children aren’t like that.”