Bernice Robinson

Text adapted from Refuse to Stand Silently By edited by Eliot Wigginton.

Bernice Robinson was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 7, 1914. The day she was born was the first time it had snowed in Charleston for over a hundred years. Bernice brought the snow to Charleston--or so her mother believed--, and this meant that she was going to spend her life disturbing the elements. She was the ninth and last child in the Robinson family.

During the forties in New York City, this black woman learned to enjoy "beat" music at the Apollo Theater, or jazz concerts and classical music at Carnegie Hall. To her initial surprise--having come North from Charleston--seating in Manhattan was not by race.

Meanwhile, nothing seemed to change back home in South Carolina. Cinemas remained the only entertainment, and black moviegoers were allowed only in the balcony, or "buzzards' roost," as it was called. And by 1948, circumstances in Charleston worsened when white delegates from South Carolina and Mississippi protested a civil rights plank in the Democratic platform. Instead of supporting Harry S. Truman, these segregationalists walked out of the convention, formed the Dixiecrat party, and rallied behind South Carolina's Strom Thurmond as a presidential candidate. Once again, politics was the forum for arguing civil rights.

Although Bernice Robinson had first gone to New York City with the intention of becoming a musician, she returned to Charleston with a politically valuable skill. As a beautician, she could maintain ecnomic independence from what, at the time, was a virtually all-white business community. This meant that she could work for the NAACP without fear of financial reprisals. And she did.

In 1955, Bernice attended a Highlander workshop on the United Nations with Septima Clark. Rosa Parks was at that workshop. There was a cross section of people from all over the South. At the end of the workshop, they asked the participants what they could do to promote the United Nations in their home communities. Esau Jenkins, who was from Johns Island, South Carolina, said, "Well, I don't know about the promoting of the United Nations, but I'll tell you what I'm interested in," and then he started in. "I need to get my people registered to vote. They got to read a part of the Constitution and they don't know how to read and I'd like a school set up." He went on to tell them how he was trying to teach in the bus going back and forth to work.

Esau turned the whole workshop around. From that point on, two days of intense work went into planning a school for Johns Island.

After many months of work and with the ongoing support of Highlander, a school was ready. Esau approached Bernice about being the teacher. Reluctantly, she agreed. Bernice was still working in her beauty shop and also caring for an ill mother, but she began recruiting and faced her first class with the words, "I'm not going to be the teacher. We're going to learn together. You're going to teach me some things, and maybe there are a few things I might be able to teach you, but I don't consider myself a teacher. I just feel that I'm here to learn with you. We'll learn things together."

Everyone presented Bernice with what they wanted to learn and that became the curriculum. At the end of five months, all fourteen of the pupils that she started with had received their voter registration certificates, they could read and write, and they could do arithmetic. After that, the program continued to grow beyond anyone's expectations, expanding to Wadmalaw and Edisto Islands, and soon to Charleston itself.

Bernices's mother died in 1961. That same year National news headlines focused on the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Freedom Riders that it sponsored. Violence attracted the photographers' eyes, because angry whites in Alabama and Mississippi used beatings and arson and legal harrassment to resist the Freedom Rider's test of desegregation practices.

Also in 1961, but with little publicity, the SCLC, SNCC, and CORE cooperated in another endeavor: expanding the impact of the Citizenship Schools. Bernice Robinson, who had been the first Citizenship School teacher, was employed by both Highlander and the SCLC to set up voter-registration workshops in communities across the racially tense South. As such, she made no news headlines, but neither was she immune from threats or danger. The legacy of the Freedom Riders was certain. Once fear had been set loose in Dixie, few civil rights workers were safe.

Having waged the most successful and widespread literacy campaign ever seen in the United States, Bernice left the SCLC in 1970 and was hired by the South Carolina Commission for Farm Workers (SCCFW), under whose auspices she supervised VISTA volunteers in her native Charleston. In 1972 she made an unsuccessful bid for a Congress, then returned to the SCCFW and worked with migrants until 1977.

Like those of Julian Bond, Bernice Robinson's accomplishments during the sixties defined her as a pure activist. Through the Citizenship Schools, she served as a frontline adult educator in the civil rights movement, gaining her a prominent place among those who have had a lasting impact on society through their educational work. She died in 1994.


Eliot Wigginton (ed.), Refuse to Stand Silently By: An Oral History of Grass Roots Social Activism in America 1921-1964. Doubleday: New York 1992.