Sarah Elizabeth Leverette was born in Iva, South Carolina on December 30, 1919. 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 organized to help prepare 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 graduated with honors from the University of South Carolina 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 the School of Law, and on June 1, 1943, she became the 35th woman admitted to the South Carolina Bar Association.
During WWII, Leverette tried to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Forces but was rejected due to her height. Instead, she enlisted in the South Carolina Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, which undertook emergency services and operational missions in the war. She rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the war’s end. In 1945, she attempted to enter the legal profession but realized 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 classmate’s newly-opened law practice, Leverette joined the South Carolina Department of Labor, where she remained until 1947. As Leverette often recalled later in life, “I knew the door was closed, but I did not know it was locked. And the key was in the pocket of some man.”
In 1947, the new dean of the USC School of Law, Samuel Prince, encouraged Leverette to return to her alma mater. She accepted the position of law librarian in 1947 and spent the summer completing postgraduate work 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.
In the early 1950s, Leverette joined the League of Women Voters of the Columbia Area, and the board elected her president in 1958. Her initial advocacy focused on seating women on juries. Though the Civil Rights Act of 1957 had granted both white women and African American men the right to sit on federal juries, neither could sit on local or state juries. Despite Leverette’s and the league’s continued efforts, South Carolina was the second-to-last state to grant women this duty.
Leverette retired from USC in 1972, after being appointed to the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission. After six years there, she 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.
To learn more about Sarah Leverette and all the women honored by Columbia City of Women, visit columbiacityofwomen.com.