Looking Back: Henrie Monteith Treadwell

Posted on: 9/15/2013; Updated on: 2/7/2014

Growing up, the conversations in my family always involved civil rights. My mother, Rachel Rebecca Monteith, worked to achieve equal pay for teachers in South Carolina, and my aunt, Modjeska Simkins, was involved with many issues, as was my uncle Henry Monteith. So we didn’t really carve out this one issue, the desegregation of USC, as something uniquely and significantly important, though certainly it was.

Initially the thought was simply, ‘Here you are, ready to go to college. Let’s just send this in and see what they do’—without a thought that maybe we would have to pursue anything further. 

Other universities in other Southern states had already integrated. I think we thought that maybe the university would take the low road and say, ‘Okay, let’s just let her in because it’s going that way anyway.’ And my sense is that if they had just said, ‘Okay, you can come,’ I probably would not have. But once they said ‘no’— for no good reason—it became a different issue. There was no explanation, just a letter: not accepted. The next step became obvious. 

I don’t mean to make it sound as if I were a visionary, but at some point it became clear to me that in order to open the doors, I had to do what I did. And so I did.

We contacted attorney Matthew Perry, and I went awayto college in Baltimore. During that year the case made its way through the courts. If it was a complicated process, it was not so for me. I remember sitting with my family when the phone call came, but the more vivid memory is of watching the news on television, seeing that the judge had ruled that the university had to admit me. 

That summer, the American Friends Service Committee made certain that there were meetings with white students who openly accepted integration. So I came to the university knowing that I would know people. I also met Robert Anderson and Jim Solomon then. On September 11th, attorney Perry drove the three of us to campus to register. 

Obviously there was a crowd everywhere we went, but I recall just walking forward and doing what I had to do. I met a photographer many years later who said, ‘While you appeared to be walking straight ahead, your eyes were scanning the crowd the whole time,’ and I think that’s probably true. I have images in my mind of people all around. But I was calm. We’d had an unfortunate episode that summer where people threw dynamite in my aunt and uncle’s yard, but I choose not to live my life worrying about what might happen.

The registration at Osborne was incredibly smooth. And the person who registered me, a professor in the chemistry department, was just so friendly it probably put me off a bit. I thought, ‘What? Is he smiling? Is he being cynical? What?’ But it was a genuine smile of friendship and welcome.  So no matter what others might have said, there was that human moment there that was very important. Coming out of Osborne if I had any emotion it was, ‘Wow, this was not what was described to me, but I seem to be registered.’ 

When I moved into my dorm on the women’s quad the friends who I had met earlier in the summer were around. They gave me some feeling of security, but they weren’t smothering or suffocating. But again, when you have to do something you don’t look for where the support systems are; you just do it.

There were people who were a little snide sometimes, but then they didn’t have the courage to recognize that the time had come for change, and so they went the other way. That’s not to say there wasn’t perhaps real danger sometimes, I don’t know. I just know I can’t live with fear. If someone wants to live on fear, they can do that. I can’t live there with them. 

Overall, I had a great experience at Carolina. I got the education that I needed as a citizen and as an individual. Certainly mine was a more closed, more isolated and insular experience than many had, but it gave me an opportunity to explore the depth of my own character. I’m not suggesting that I made it to some mountaintop, but if you go through thinking, ‘This is my goal, this is my objective, and I am going to do it,’ then you continue to carry that with you.

 

Henrie Monteith Treadwell’s narrative appeared previously as part of the feature “Circa ‘63” in the fall issue of Carolinian magazine.


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