Beaufort Academy--"None Ever Applied"

By George Mcmillan

Vol. 4, No. 6, 1982, pp. 3-4

If Congress wants to know how a typical tax exempt segregated school works in a typical Southern town it should look at Beaufort Academy in this South Carolina Low Country community.

Beaufort Academy is a flourishing place. It's not in the least like one of those barren campuses plopped down on the rim of some Southern rural community, and presided over by a sweaty, panting, fundamentalist zealot.

Instead it is an attractive place with a country club air about it. It has 125 acres in the midst of pleasant suburbs, six buildings, including a library, gym, a music room, and twenty-four class rooms. It has an annual budget of $750,000, and 475 students in grades one through twelve.

These students would rather been seen dead than without their Izod shirts and Bass Weejuns. And the chairman of its Board of Trustees has been Henry Chambers, the mayor of Beaufort, one of the town's best-dressed businessmen.

Beaufort Academy has been in the education business continuously since 1966, and it has never had a black student. Or, as its officials insist, "no black student has ever applied to us." And yet it has complied with present IRS regulations and has tax exempt status. It does not pay any property tax, either. For one period it refused to pay social security taxes for its teachers.

It would seem that Beaufort Academy, having the best of both worlds, being both lily-white in fact and paying no taxes (except sales tax), would be content with its status of relative immunity and that its history as an institution in this town, in its relationships with other institutions, and especially the public schools, would be that of a benign one.

The opposite is true, and Beaufort Academy, and the private school forces which support it, have worked aggressively against public schools, and at one time came close to destroying the public school system here.

The lesson for Congress in Beaufort Academy's story is that schools like Beaufort Academy enmesh themselves deeply in the social, economic, political and educational life of the town. They claim the allegiance of community leaders just when they are badly needed to help the public schools through the worst crisis in Southern public school history.

The affluent, influential, parents of Beaufort Academy students found themselves under pressure in the past decade to commit themselves to private education as a cause and not simply as an educational option.

In fact, the wounds have not healed yet from the bitter, destructive, fight that took place here between public school and private school forces in the years from 1974 until 1980. The battle eventually involved the Governor of South Carolina, and required a legislative act to bring the fight to a temporary compromise.

"You would almost be driven to the conclusion that a private school just can't peacefully coexist with public schools," is the moral one public school official drew from the battle.

In 1974, public school officials, "having weathered the worse of our integration troubles," began to feel the pinch of a "dilapidated and unsafe," school plant, and had some studies made of the needed improvements, one of which was done by a blue ribbon and apparently non-partisan committee of local people, some of whom had children in Beaufort Academy. A bond issue of $24.5 million was decided upon.

"Everything changed when better public education had a price tag on it," says Nancy Thomas, one of those who got into the fight. She was one of a group of women who had worked together in the League of Women Voters in Beaufort and who became the nucleus of the side which fought for the public schools. The group included a former nun, a black woman who created and runs an organization of child care centers in the Low Country, a former high school teacher--most of these women were in their thirties and had small children in the public schools. They were guided by Robert Salisbury, the county superintendent of schools, a tough, aggressive and politically astute administrator.

The most determined and the most forthrightly belligerent opposition seemed to come from just one man. He is Charles Stockell, a retired Army colonel, executive director of the Beaufort Chamber of Commerce, and an


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instructor in international relations in the University of South Carolina (Beaufort). Stockell had previously been a spokesman for conservative causes locally. In the school issue, he announced that he was spokesman for the Committee for Accountable Schools. He spoke and he appeared on TV, radio, at civic groups.

No officers of his committee were ever announced, and no membership list was ever published. No public accounting of the monies spent in Stockell's fight was ever made.

The Board of Education announced that it was going to advertise for bids on its bond issue on December 19, 1979. On December 14, two men and Stockell's committee sued to prevent the bond sale.

This effectively stopped the bond sale, a local state senator settled the dispute by offering a compromise which was incorporated in a bill he introduced in the state legislature which gave the schools the right to sell bonds for $14.5 million.

The bonds were finally sold in 1980. New school buildings are being built but the cost in inflation and from increased interest rates caused by the delay is high if difficult to figure. When the bonds were first being talked about the interest rate was fi.5 percent; when they were sold it was 10.6 percent.

Stockell, even today, will not reveal the names of the Committee for Accountable Schools, except to reply to a questioner: "None of your damned business." The lawyer who filed the suit says he "attended a couple of meetings where there were about fifteen men." Charles Fraser, the original developer of Hilton Head Island and Chairman of the Board, Sea Pines Plantation Company, says that he was not a member but "I did attend a couple of meetings."

One of the ironies of Beaufort Academy is that there is at least some part of the parental group who probably would not put racial segregation as the paramount reason for sending their children there. They would insist they want their children to have "a better education." Another reason about which they would not be explicit is that they are part of a new class in the South, well-heeled young doctors and dentists and lawyers, mostly from less well-to-do rural or small town farm families in the South, who are ardently determined to fix a social class for themselves and their children--to put behind them all the allegations of being red-necked and bigots. In Beaufort it is, as they call it, "the Academy" which is the institution that performs that social function.

It may be that Beaufort Academy is not better than the public Beaufort High School or Battery Creek. There is really no way to know because Beaufort Academy is not certified by any of the usually-recognized certifying agencies--not by the state department of education, nor by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. "Just remember" said one state official, "they don't have to meet any standards of any kind if they don't want to or cants."

The black community in Beaufort county has members on most of the public governing agencies in the county, and feels "relief," and not frustration at being either able or unable to attend Beaufort Academy. "The worst thing to me," said one of them, "is that it is training another generation of white Southern leaders in the myths, the stereotypes and the taboos of a segregated society."

To the coalition of conservatives who apparently are seeking broader ideological objectives Beaufort Academy is a symbol of achievement and the embodiment of their ideology.

One of these is Charles Aimar, a local pharmacist, who founded Beaufort Academy. He is still an active and influential member of the board, and he served for some years as president of the South Carolina Independent Schools Association.

"I don't believe in government-operated schools at all, not for anybody, not in any grade, high or low," Aimar said the other day. "I think the free enterprise system can run education in this country and do a good job if it's given a chance."

Mr. Aimar says that he was "a contributor to" a "Freedom Library," in Beaufort which was being run by the local John Birch Society at the time he organized Beaufort Academy. He says he would "rather not answer" on whether he was a John Birch member.

George McMillan its a freelance writer who lives in Frogmore, South Carolina.