USC commemorates 50 years of desegregation
By Craig Brandhorst, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3681
On October 1, 1962, all hell broke loose in Oxford, Mississippi.
That day, following a legal battle that rose all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, 29-year-old African-American James Meredith enrolled at a previously segregated University of Mississippi amid riots that left two people dead and 200 U.S. Marshals and National Guardsmen injured. The entire nation was left reeling by the bloodshed and worried what was next.
That same month, 550 miles away in Columbia, South Carolina, attorney Matthew Perry filed a lawsuit on behalf of a young woman named Henrie Monteith, who like Meredith and countless other African-Americans throughout the segregated South, had been denied entrance to her home state’s flagship public institution—in her case, the University of South Carolina.
The next eleven months would test Carolina in unprecedented ways. The change the university underwent over the next decade, moreover, would help transform it into a truly modern institution.
The fight to desegregate USC in the early 1960s wasn’t a new development. Carolina had briefly desegregated a century earlier during Reconstruction (1873-1877) and African-Americans had challenged the institution’s whites-only admission policy ever since. Likewise, outspoken white faculty like College of Education Dean Chester Travelstead and philosophy professor Joseph Margolis lost their jobs in the 1950s for publicly criticizing the state’s segregationist policy.
But coming into 1963, with lawsuits pending, the stakes were higher than ever, prompting outgoing South Carolina Gov. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings to conclude his Jan. 9, 1963 farewell address to the General Assembly by beseeching the people of the Palmetto State to accept desegregation “for the good of South Carolina and our United States.”
“This should be done with dignity,” the onetime segregationist added. “It must be done with law and order. It is a hurdle that brings little progress to either side. But the failure to clear it will do us irreparable harm.”
While hardly a clarion call for social justice, Hollings’ speech at least paved the way for a peaceful desegregation of the state’s public colleges — and none too soon.
On Jan. 16, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Clemson University to admit African-American transfer student Harvey Gantt. Two weeks later, the Charleston native arrived on the Upstate campus to national media coverage but zero violence.
Hollings’ successor, former USC President Donald Russell, complimented South Carolinians for their law-abiding “calmness” — even as he reiterated his opposition to desegregation.
Meanwhile — in fact, five days prior to the Gantt ruling — the Gamecock published a front-page photo of attorney Perry’s other principle client, Henrie Monteith, prompting a flurry of angry letters to the editor. A freshman at Maryland’s Notre Dame College, Monteith quickly responded with a letter of her own, introducing herself as someone who does “not wish to be a symbol … rather, just an ordinary college girl.”
Three months later, on May 10, the Gamecock published Monteith's letter.
A measured response
The paper’s readers now knew something about their future classmate: She aspired to become a doctor, perhaps to serve in the Peace Corps and she had hobbies — “playing the piano, singing, reading, and playing sports of almost any type.” Monteith also congratulated Clemson for its peaceful desegregation and expressed confidence in the students at Carolina to “act in accordance with their better judgment at my entry.”
On July 10, the U.S. District Court ordered USC to admit Monteith for the fall. Shortly thereafter, two more African-Americans — Robert Anderson of Greenville and James Solomon of Sumter — also applied. Like Monteith, Anderson was an undergraduate transfer; Solomon, a professor at Morris College, applied to the new graduate program in mathematics.
President Tom Jones formed a committee to oversee what would soon be dubbed I-Day (integration day) and named former naval officer Charles Witten the new dean of students.
Witten assembled a group of student leaders at the Russell House and asked them to consider how their actions would reflect on the university. He also began notifying the rest of the student body of the university’s official position.
“The board of trustees wasn’t going to do anything unless they were forced to do it,” Witten told interviewers Bobby Donaldson and Andrea L’Hommedieu as part of ongoing oral history work conducted through the South Caroliniana Library. But the courts had spoken, and so, at the board’s behest, the new dean outlined the university’s expectations for the fall and encouraged each student’s full cooperation.
The greater concern, though, was troublemakers from off-campus. And so as the summer wore on, Witten maintained contact with SLED chief Pete Strom, who was to oversee security on Sept. 11, and also with Monteith’s attorney, Perry. “He trusted me and I trusted him,” Witten said.
The three incoming students were provided with security details, but ultimately, I-Day proved anticlimactic: no violence, no protests and little media coverage, exactly as the university wanted.
“My recollection is that it was a story, and it got coverage, but that it wasn’t that big a deal,” says historian and USC alumnus Jack Bass, by then a reporter for The (Columbia) Record. “The main thing was that nobody got in a fight, nobody was throwing bricks. It was all very quiet.”
Full integration slow, but steady
In the fall of 1965, 11 more African-American students enrolled and each year saw more. But many areas of campus life were slow to integrate.
“Living on the campus wasn’t thought to be that great,” says Harry Wright, ’70, who moved into Maxcy dormitory in 1966. Wright, who would later join the faculty at USC’s medical school, estimates that “about half of the African-American enrollment didn’t live on campus. They lived in the city.”
Finally, with encouragement from the national Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group of proactive students launched the Association of Afro-American Students (AAAS) in 1967.
Proactive students like Wright, Battiste and the organization’s first president Kenny Price now had a political vehicle for changing the university from within. Over the next few years, these young students would plant the seeds for the university’s African-American Studies Program and initiate a host of other positive changes, the effects of which can be tracked all the way to the present.
But back in the late sixties change was slow and frequently difficult. Racial tensions sparked fights and were blamed for acts of arson on campus, including one fire that damaged Hamilton College and another that gutted the Field House.
In 1969, at the end of another volatile spring marked by a vitriolic back-and-forth on the editorial pages of the Gamecock, President Jones issued a statement imploring the students to re-evaluate their attitudes: “I ask, I plead, that all students, regardless of race, color, or creed give your utmost efforts to practice the Golden Rule of all great faiths — ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.”
It was an important moment, described by historian Henry H. Lesesne as “a catharsis for the university.”
In the spring of 1971, less than a decade after Monteith’s lawsuit, a junior named Harry Walker was elected Carolina’s first African-American student body president — at a time when only 341 of the school’s 14,000-plus students identified as African-American.
As Ebony magazine reported that August, “The circumstances of Walker’s victory seemed to point toward a true mandate for black leadership … [and] say a great deal about the political savvy of some young Southern blacks, the changing attitudes of their white counterparts and the possibilities both might present for racial progress in the future.”
An unabridged version of this story appears in the fall 2013 issue of Carolinian magazine.
University Magazine Group