Columbia City of Women Honoree
Sarah Elizabeth Leverette
Image courtesy of the State Newspaper Photograph Archive, Richland Library.
On December 30, 1919, Sarah Elizabeth Leverette was born in Iva, South Carolina to Captain Stephen Ernest Leverette and Allie E. McGee Leverette. By then, 22 states had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Less than two months later, on February 14, 1920, the League of Women Voters (LWV) organized to help prepare newly empowered women for an increased role in government affairs. Although the Nineteenth Amendment, signed into law on August 26, 1920, would mark a major shift to a more equal society, Leverette would spend her life fighting for women’s rights in South Carolina, a state that did not certify ratification until 1973.
Leverette completed her associate’s degree at Anderson Junior College in 1938 and graduated with honors from the University of South Carolina (USC) in 1940. She enrolled in USC’s School of Law where she endured “courteous paternalism by her fellow students and the dean, who wished she would go away.” She persevered, becoming one of the first women to graduate from U of SC’s School of Law, and on June 1, 1943, she became the 35th woman admitted to the South Carolina Bar Association.
“I knew the door was closed, but I did not know it was locked. And the key was in the pocket of some man.”
— Sarah E. Leverette
Leverette tried to enlist in the US Army Air Forces but was rejected due to her height. Instead, she became the only woman to enlist in the South Carolina Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, which undertook emergency services and operational missions during World War II. She rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the war’s end. In 1945, she attempted to enter the legal profession, but realized that practicing as a lawyer in a state that did not permit women to sit on juries would not be possible. After a very brief stint as a secretary at her former classmates’ newly opened law practice, Leverette joined the South Carolina Department of Labor, where she remained until 1947.
That year, Samuel Prince, who assumed the deanship at USC School of Law in 1946, encouraged Leverette to return to her alma mater. She accepted the position of law librarian in 1947 and spent the summer completing postgraduate work in legal research and law library administration at Columbia University. As the first female faculty member of the law school, she taught research and legal writing to every USC law student over the next 25 years. During this time, her mentorship helped shape the lives of South Carolina’s greatest legal minds, including 1968 graduates I.S. Leevy Johnson, the first African American president of the South Carolina Bar, and Chief Justice Jean Toal, the first woman elected to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The year that Leverette began her tenure at the law school, 30 women formed the provisional League of Women Voters of the Columbia Area. The group received official recognition in 1950, and Leverette joined shortly thereafter, beginning a tenure of service spanning more than 60 years. She served on the board in the 1950s and helped compile “Know Your County,” a 1953-guide to raise awareness of civic affairs. In January 1958, the board elected her the eighth president of Columbia’s league. Her initial program focused on efforts to place women on juries. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 had recently granted both white women and African American men the right to sit on federal juries. Neither of these groups could sit on local or state juries, although legislation granting white women the right to serve was pending in South Carolina’s General Assembly. She attempted to rally local support by submitting a letter to The State on January 28 and a request for support to the Richland County Bar Association on March 4, 1958. Despite Leverette’s and the league’s continued efforts, the General Assembly would not pass legislation until 1967, making South Carolina the second-to-last state to allow women to serve on juries.
During her three-year term as president of the Columbia league, Leverette also focused on registering voters. Leading up the 1960 election, she called attention to the league’s Voters’ Service program, calling registration the first step in voting procedure and communicating the importance of participating in The State on January 28, 1960 thusly:
"The direct and very real effect of government upon the individual is unquestioned – from garbage collection to foreign policy. Whether we want to or not, we, the public will make these decisions and whether we like it or not, they will have a “here-right-now” effect upon every one of us."
After stepping down as president in 1961, Leverette remained involved with the league’s efforts at the local and state level for the rest of her life.
Leverette retired from USC in 1972 after being appointed to the South Carolina Industrial Commission (Workers’ Compensation Commission). During her 25 years at USC, she oversaw the moving of the law library to the newly completed Petigru College in 1950 and the preparations for moving to the USC Law Center, which opened in 1974. One of her greatest regrets, though, was what she perceived as her complicity in the “separate but equal” doctrine; in 1948, she organized the law library at South Carolina State University in an attempt to make the segregated school’s facilities equal to those of USC. Decades later, as a form of atonement, she nominated Judge J. Waites Waring (1880-1968) for the prestigious “Memory Hold the Door” (MHTD) honor. Established by the South Carolina Bar Association in 1958 to honor past leaders in the law profession, MHTD had long ignored Waring because of his progressive role in the civil rights movement. His dissenting opinion in Briggs v. Elliott provided the blueprint for the unanimous US Supreme Court decision to end “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education. With Leverette’s nomination, Waring was inducted into MHTD in 2004, nearly four decades after his death.
After six years at the South Carolina Industrial Commission, Leverette attempted to retire, but found it “boring.” She obtained a real estate license and embarked on a new career while remaining active in civic organizations, including the League of Women Voters. Sarah Leverette died on August 29, 2018 in Columbia.
Sarah E. Leverette, law librarian and first female faculty member of UofSC’s School of Law, oversaw preparations of the library’s move to this building in 1972, one of her final accomplishments during her 25 years with the university. The structure, which officially opened in 1974, remained in use until the law school moved to its current building on Gervais Street in 2017.