In the spring of 1956, Mary Jackson was 23 and in love with her soon-to-be husband, James Hough.
She was just out of college and on her first teaching assignment at the Elloree Training School in Elloree, S.C.
Racial tensions were on the rise then in the Deep South.
The South Carolina General Assembly had passed a law in April 1956 requiring state workers who were members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to revoke their membership or resign their positions.
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Jackson, who is black, quit rather than do so.
“I was not going to let them tell me (what to do),” said Mary Jackson Hough, who now lives in Wichita. “They were saying we couldn’t be a member of an organization that was fighting for the rights of black people.”
Taking a stand
In May 1956, 31 teachers at Elloree were asked to fill out an application, according to a February 2014 article published by the Times and Democrat newspaper of Orangeburg County, S.C.
The form asked some of the following questions, the paper reported.
Do you belong to the NAACP? Do any of your family members? Do you believe in the aims of the NAACP?
Jackson wasn’t having anything to do with it.
“My mother was a strong person,” she said of her motivation to defy school officials. “She was strong on education. When she was growing up, she went to a boarding school because they didn’t have schools for blacks up to a certain level. She was a very smart person and was very outspoken. She didn’t believe in oppression. She didn’t let people push you down.”
And she trained her daughter to be like-minded.
So when, in 1956, Jackson was given the application, she refused to fill it out.
“I didn’t even think of the consequences afterward,” she said.
There was no discussion among the teachers. No meeting. Of the 31 teachers, 21 refused to fill out the application.
To understand that decision by the Elloree 21, it is important to remember that during the mid- to late 1950s, civil-rights issues were only beginning to be part of the national discussion.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, was handed down in 1954. The case was actually a combination of several lawsuits.
Thurgood Marshall was the chief counsel for the NAACP at the time. He later was appointed as the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The strategy then of lawyers and the NAACP was to eliminate and break the back of Jim Crow, a collective name given to segregation laws.
In 1957, nine black students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. It became national news when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus denied them from entering – until President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to intervene.
And in the 1950s, drugstore lunch counters and restaurants in Kansas as well as throughout much of the nation might serve black customers, but only if they didn’t sit down at the counter.
Wichita was the first city in the nation to have a successful sit-in. Late in the summer of 1958, 10 members of the youth chapter of the NAACP staged a sit-in at the lunch counter at the Dockum Drugs Store on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broadway.
Their nonviolent effort resulted in Dockum and eventually other Rexall stores across the state providing seated service for blacks.
Recognizing the Elloree 21
In her own way, Jackson took a stand along with 20 other teachers who gave their resignation notices. In time, they would be called the Elloree 21.
Their future careers were threatened. For some, it took years to find another job.
But Mary Jackson Hough would continue teaching after marrying her husband, accepting his last name and moving with him through the various assignments he was given by the U. S. Air Force. She taught in Germany, Texas, Wichita and even years later back in South Carolina.
When she finally resigned a second time in South Carolina, a school principal told her he was surprised she was one of the Elloree 21.
“I was Mary Jackson when I was part of the Elloree 21. I was Mary Hough later,” she said. “He told me he wouldn’t have hired me (if he had known I was part of the Elloree 21), because he was afraid of his job.”
Of the Elloree 21, she said, “those who stayed suffered and couldn’t find a job for years.”
In 1957, the South Carolina law requiring the teachers to fill out the application was denounced as unconstitutional.
Now, nearly six decades later, the Elloree 21 are being recognized for their stand. Last year, South Carolina legislators passed a resolution recognizing the 21 teachers “to honor the courage and sacrifice of the Elloree 21 in Orangeburg County, a group of teachers who changed the course of history of the civil rights movement in South Carolina and for their role in securing quality for African American citizens of their state.”
Last month, Hough, now 82, was recognized by the Grand Chapel AME Church during its Founder’s Day service for her courageous stand.
Next year, a reunion is planned for the Elloree 21 survivors, she said.
“People keep asking ‘Why have you kept it quiet so long?’ ” Hough said last week. “It happened a thousand years ago, and life just goes on.”
But it bothers her, she said, when she reads in the news about racial struggles still going on – such as the most recent incident involving the University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon video that went viral or changes in voting restrictions.
“Looks like we are going backwards,” she said. “We have come a long, long way, but we still have a ways to go. They are trying to change the voting rights that people died for or were beaten up for in getting the right to vote. I don’t think some people understand. If you’ve never been black, you really don’t.”