Neil Robinson and Hal Ravenel are pedigreed Charlestonians - tanned Southern businessmen who live among the city's antebellum mansions and make a comfortable living developing nearby islands into playgrounds for the rich. Until now, civic duty for these two men has meant chairing a tourism board or a wildlife organization. Nothing could have been more remote from their lives than the fate of a mostly black magnet school in downtown Charleston. But Mr. Robinson and Mr. Ravenel have been drawn out of their mahogany-paneled world and into the thick of two of America's most difficult and enduring inner-city problems: racism and substandard education. "I would have laughed about it if someone had mentioned getting involved in the public school system," says Robinson in his downtown law office. "But it just seemed like somebody needed to do something. If we can get the energies focused and people doing the right things, then I'll be perfectly happy to go back to doing what I do best. Because I do feel like a fish out of water." The two men are spearheading an effort to improve education for all Charleston County students, black and white. It's a goal often articulated in communities across the country. But the steps Robinson and Ravenel are taking - raising private money for a systemwide study of school inequities - offer an untried approach to alleviating racial tensions in the schools, an emerging urban concern. Indeed, it is the issue topping the agenda at the NAACP annual convention in Pittsburgh this week. "Without question, the educational systems are one of the flash points of issues having to do with race today," says David Bositis at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, a group that studies black issues. This experiment is unusual not only because it is headed by two wealthy men whose children have always attended private schools, but also for where it's occurring. Charleston is, after all, the city where the Civil War began, historically a place of sprawling plantations run on slave labor. In the offices of the city's powerbrokers, paintings of Confederate heroes are still proudly hung. Yet Charleston's heritage also includes some of the earliest civil rights strides in the South. Since 1975, the city has had a council made up of six blacks and six whites, and during the past 20 years that council has never voted along racial lines. In fact, the city administration since the '70s has reflected the racial makeup of the city, which is half black. Charleston was among the first cities in the South to appoint a black police chief and to set aside a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Much of the credit for advancing race relations goes to Mayor Joe Riley, who has held that office for the past two decades. Mayor Riley fought for minority rights when it was an unpopular stand - so unpopular that many Charlestonians nicknamed him "LBJ," for Little Black Joe. "After I'd been in office about six months, ... a very prominent African-American leader in town ... told me that I was doing too much for the black people. He was afraid I was going to lose in the next election," Riley recalls. It was, he says now, "One of the nicest compliments I ever got."
Over time, those tensions eased, and today Riley is held in high regard for his successes in economic development, fair distribution of the city's resources, and a low crime rate - the lowest since the 1950s. Despite progress that has been made, city leaders from the mayor to the president of the local NAACP chapter say that little has been done to correct racial inequities in the schools. Charleston's city schools are part of a 71-school, countywide public-education system. Within the system - which has had a strong magnet-school focus for decades - are some of South Carolina's best-performing schools and some of its worst. And the worst schools, observers say, are often found in the poorer, black communities. "The schools in the inner city have been totally neglected over the years," says Jim French, publisher of Chronicle, Charleston's black weekly. Last September, the issue came to a head when the school board proposed moving a top-performing magnet school out of the only downtown high school, the predominantly black Burke High School. To keep the magnet school downtown, the mayor suggested renovating an old building and moving it there. It was at a meeting opposing this solution that Ravenel and Robinson were first inspired to get involved.
When the school board voted to move the magnet school out of Burke High, Ravenel was sitting next to two black women and saw firsthand their "incredible frustration and disappointment ... that feeling that they had lost again." As he left the meeting, Ravenel says, "It sounds kind of corny but ... God said to me, 'Hal, you've been given what you've been given for 57 years.... Now it's time to help somebody else besides yourself." Ravenel and Robinson joined forces and got the school superintendent to agree to a no-holds-barred study on how to fix Charleston's schools. They have since recruited an impressive group of community and education leaders. And they've turned to Charles Willie, professor of education and urban studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., to lead the study. The Charleston group is now trying to raise $200,000 in private funds to bring Dr. Willie and his team to the city. Willie says it is unusual to be approached by a group of concerned citizens rather than a school board or a city government. He credits Charleston's business leaders for seeing the relationship between education and economic prosperity. "What Charleston has shown is an interest in what happens to its community as a whole," Willie says.
Some have questioned Robinson's and Ravenel's motivations. Did they become involved because they didn't want a magnet school relocated to their neighborhood? They maintain they simply became concerned when made aware of the situation. To many, the motivation does not matter. Any resources put toward bettering the city's education is money well spent. "Since it's being paid for by private contributions, I don't see why there should be any opposition," says Mr. French.
Even if the money is never raised and the study never happens, the effort is already bringing more minorities into the school system's decisionmaking process. "We're already starting to get more and more vocal expressions coming out into the community," Robinson says. It is this process - people working with other people and groups outside of their own worlds - that ends racism, say experts. "Racism is ... a problem that we certainly have to relentlessly address," says Alex Sanders, president of the College of Charleston and a supporter of the study. "But today, it seems to me that we have better relationships with people [of different races] on a personal level. And it seems to me that that's the only level where we're going to be able to make progress."