What is now the Blatt P.E. Center was built in 1971. In October 1973, the Physical Education Center was dedicated to Solomon “Sol” Blatt, South Carolina Speaker of the House. The State newspaper listed his associations with the university—“a 1917 law graduate…a member of the USC Board of Trustees from 1935-47…received the honorary doctor of laws degree from USC”—in its piece on the ceremony.1 This dedication also marked the beginning of construction on the center: by 1975, it had doubled in size and added an Olympic-sized pool, diving towers, offices and classrooms, and two gymnasiums. The building was renovated in 2015, adding locker rooms for men and women athletes.2
Blatt’s ties to the University of South Carolina:
- Student, 1912-1917
- Board of Trustee member, 1936-1948
- Provided significant funding for the university throughout his tenure as the Speaker
of the House, was dubbed “Mr. USC”
- Active in providing restoration of the historic Horseshoe buildings on campus, helped save and secure funding for the University of South Carolina medical school in 1976
- In 1946, students claimed that he “singlehandedly controlled the University board of trustees” and dubbed him “King Sol” in 1958.
- Played a role in the development of the Carolina Scholars program, the Ethel and Solomon Blatt Barnwell County Scholarship helps Barnwell county residents attend the university
- Was a staunch segregationist and used his political power to enforce segregation throughout
the state and at the University of South Carolina
- In opposition to compulsory school attendance of integrated schools, gave a speech saying he would rather have Black teenagers “on the streets. They can be avoided there. I don't want them sitting in class with my granddaughter holding hands during May Day activities, playing with her, and going places where they go.”
- Headed a special committee of the Board of Trustees to prevent two Black men from attending the university in 1938 and 1929, declaring they “will do everything in their power to maintain the University of South Carolina for white students only”
- Successfully pushed for the firing of South Carolina professor Joseph Margolis for his criticism of segregation. Urged governor and college president to take action in firing him.
- Was House speaker when the legislature enacted 28 laws opposing desegregation or defending segregation in response to the Brown v. Board of Education
Solomon, or “Sol” Blatt was born in Blackville, South Carolina, to Nathan and Mollie Blatt on February 27, 1895. His father was a Russian Orthodox Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1893. Blatt attended the University of South Carolina from 1912 to 1917 and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1917. Blatt served in France with the 81st Division during World War I from 1918 to 1919. After he returned, he married Ethel Green on March 18, 1920. They had one son, Solomon Blatt Jr.
In 1932, Blatt was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives from Barnwell County. Three years later, he was elected speaker pro tempore, and became speaker of the House in 1937. He would hold that position from 1937 to 1973, apart from a four-year gap from 1947 to 1951. Blatt was a member of the “Barnwell ring” of politicians and thus subject to the scrutiny of politicians like Strom Thurmond.
As speaker of the House, Blatt was consistently one of the most powerful men in South Carolina for almost four decades. South Carolina governor John West once observed that if a piece of legislation was opposed by Sol Blatt, “it would almost surely fail.”3 He helped to support industrial development in the state, such as the Savannah River Site, and was instrumental in the passage of South Carolina’s right-to-work law in 1954. Blatt also served on the Barnwell District Board of Education from 1927 to 1962 and the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees from 1936 to 1948. Despite this devotion to education, he was an ardent supporter of segregation.
Throughout his life, Blatt was openly proud of his Jewish heritage and Jewish American contributions throughout U.S. history. He gave a speech on Jewish rights in the late 1930s, condemning Adolf Hitler and the German authorities for attacking Jewish people. “Arbitrary punishment of a whole group,” he denounced, “is tyranny in its worst form.” “This is indeed unfortunate,” he stated, “because the Jews in Germany have distinguished themselves as useful, patriotic citizens…the Jews of Germany have meant much to the civilization of the world.”4
Though he retired as speaker in 1973, Blatt retained the title of speaker emeritus
and remained in the House until his death on May 14, 1986. At his time of death he
was the longest-serving state legislator in the United States at over fifty-three
years. Robert McNair called him “the most powerful person in state government.”5 His wife Ethel died in 1985.
Blatt and USC
Blatt was an ardent supporter of the University of South Carolina, especially the athletics department. In 1942, Blatt became the chairman of the new athletic committee, which was the final authority on all athletic matters at the University. He gained Board of Trustee approval to “keep all athletic department financial reports secret” and thus pay the head football coach as much as the college president. He even was given control of a football recruiting fund that Blatt could spend “without accounting to anyone.” His son occupied a similar position after his father left. Even in 1977, when neither Blatt nor his son Sol Blatt Jr. were technically trustees anymore, they pressured the university to fire coach Frank McGuire and “maintained a strong influence in Gamecock athletics.” 
Blatt opposed integration long before it was debated in the courts — in 1938 and 1939 two Black men attempted to apply to the University of South Carolina’s graduate school and law schools. When the issue was sent to a special committee headed by Blatt, the board stonewalled the applications and took no action. Even before the board made their decision, Blatt issued a public statement: “The white people of South Carolina need not have any fear as to what the outcome of this application is going to be. The Board of Trustees will do everything in their power to maintain the University of South Carolina for white students only, and in doing so, will protect the other institutions for white students supported by this state.” They then pushed for a Black law school at South Carolina State, with Blatt telling the House Judiciary Committee that “we know of no other way to meet this [the admission of a Black student to the law school] than to establish a chair of law at the State Negro College.” The law school at South Carolina State was opened in 1947 but widely criticized by Civil Rights activists as a “little, cheap, half-baked school.”7
When philosophy and psychology professor Joseph Margolis criticized segregation in the Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors in late 1957, Blatt pressured University of South Carolina president Robert Sumwalt to fire Margolis with the assistance and advice of Donald Russell. “It is my judgment that he should not be allowed to remain on the faculty” he wrote Sumwalt. “If this professor continues to express himself as he did in this article, the University is going to be in terrible shape and we might run into trouble with the legislature.”8 Margolis, he continued, expressed views “in opposition to our feelings about segregation.”9 Blatt also wrote to Governor James F. Byrnes about the issue, saying that if the university could not get Margolis to resign, “I think we should fire him.”10
Blatt was similarly opposed to antiwar protesters on campus and exerted his considerable power to remove them. In 1970, the Gamecock wrote a favorable profile of Brett Bursey, an activist leader and university student, who had been arrested and convicted for vandalization of the Columbia Selective Service office. “I wouldn’t care what the Discipline Committee said” of Bursey’s case, Blatt wrote, “I would get rid of this fellow.” Bursey was suspended from the university just three days later.11 For its coverage, Blatt dubbed the Gamecock a “red sheet” [referencing communism] and a “disgrace,” and opined that “I wouldn’t let anybody stay at the University who had anything to do with publishing it.” The Board of Trustees subsequently conducted an investigation of the newspaper and concluded that it needed tighter faculty oversight. Blatt also blamed the leadership of President Tom Jones and said that “legislators are disgusted...the University would have a hard time getting any funds...Some changes must be made and made now.” Jones resigned in early 1974.12
Blatt’s power did not go unquestioned. In 1946, students claimed that President Smith was simply a tool and puppet of the Barnwell ring and that the university was being used as a “political football” by powerful lawmakers like Blatt. They claimed that he “singlehandedly controlled the University board of trustees.” In 1947, Strom Thurmond ousted Blatt from his seat as speaker of the House and attacked Blatt and Edgar Brown as Barnwell ringleaders who also had seats on college boards of trustees. The state Supreme Court ruled this unconstitutional, and Blatt resigned his USC board seat effective 1958. He made his son, Sol Blatt Jr., his successor to the Board, and thus students at the university dubbed him “King Sol” in protest.13
When Blatt retired as speaker of the House, he stated “it would not be Sol Blatt speaking
if I did not make mention of the University of South Carolina.”14 Blatt brought in considerable money for the university. Notably, he debuted a “new
and greater university” plan in 1944, which involved a larger campus in a new site
beyond what is now the Veterans Affairs hospital. At the time, he was chair of the
buildings and grounds committee and the athletics committee. This proposal failed.
Blatt and others helped restore funding for the university’s new library building
in the 1970s and helped to save the medical school’s funding in 1976.15
Blatt and Segregation
In anticipation of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, South Carolina established a fifteen-member school committee to plan the legal challenge to court-ordered integration. Five of these seats were hand-picked by Blatt, and all were ardent segregationists.16 After Brown, the South Carolina legislature enacted legislation at a “mass production rate.” By 1958, the legislature enacted 28 laws opposing desegregation or defending segregation. Blatt was speaker of the House during this period.17
On January 26, 1956, Blatt was a speaker at a segregationist South Carolina Association of Citizen’s Councils meeting in Columbia alongside Strom Thurmond and James Eastland. Over 4,000 people attended. Blatt spoke first, assuring the audience that the state legislature was interested in continued segregation and that “the public need have no fear, the legislature will fully perform the duties expected of them. We won’t let you down.”18 In a speech to the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1960, he urged the “people of South Carolina and the other Confederate States” to stand “faster than ever by the traditions which Southern people hold so dear.” The racial tensions in the state were the fault of “misguided political agitation on the national front,” he claimed, and white Southerners had been “subjected to malicious and contemptible misrepresentations of our history and traditions…We have controlled practically every instinct to do violence.”19
Blatt used his Judaism to prove that South Carolina was a state that did not discriminate. His 1959 speech to the Hebrew Benevolent Society received national news media attention and received a “stamp of approval” from the state General Assembly.20 In it, he claimed that “there are dangerous inclinations among some of the Jewish people in America today, out of the goodness of their hearts, to establish themselves as a minority force in the tragically exaggerated storm of political propaganda which surrounds and confuses the Negro question in the South” when:
“The fact is that nowhere else on the face of the earth are Negroes happier, more prosperous, more contented, more a part of the general way of life than in South Carolina…. We know that in South Carolina the already excellent relations between the races have been so sound and friendly that all of the misrepresentations in national newspapers, magazines and over television and radio have not so much as dented the good will existing down here.”
Blatt vocally condemned Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and claimed that there were no “such persecutions against any particular race in America,” using the Holocaust as a foil. “No group of people is entitled, as a group to be given special treatment,” he concluded. “No, my friends, the Negro race, nor any other race, is oppressed in the South Carolina way of life today, and I am a living example of the tolerance of the people of this great State."21
Twenty-five years after this notable speech, Blatt stood by his comments criticizing Jewish solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement:
"In that speech I begged the Jewish people to be careful how they dealt with the black program. I said you are the ones who are going to suffer if you become active and I believe in fairness. But you are going to pay the penalty. They are going to turn upon the Jewish people the first thing they do…and I told them…you watch your stores and whatnot. And it wasn't six months after that before they began burning the Jewish stores, the merchants' stores in New York, and breaking the windows. It followed in line with what I said."22
Blatt referred to this New York incident again when asked about Jewish devotion to social justice and equality, stating that “those minorities burned those stores in New York, broke the windows. If that indicated how they felt towards my people, I wasn’t going to open the door and tell them to come in.”23
While some South Carolina politicians began to back off from their segregationist politics, Blatt was belated in doing so. In opposition to a bill that would restore compulsory school attendance in South Carolina in 1966, Blatt gave a speech with tears in his eyes as he jabbed his finger and waved his fist at colleagues, and asked: “Do you want some sixteen-year-old so-and-so holding the hand of your little granddaughter in the classroom? Sol Blatt doesn’t want that. For God’s sake, help me out.” When members of the legislature asked if Blatt would prefer having 16-year-old illiterate African Americans walking on the streets, or at school trying to get an education, Blatt replied “I'd rather have them on the streets. They can be avoided there. I don't want them sitting in class with my granddaughter holding hands during May Day activities, playing with her, and going places where they go." Blatt introduced an amendment to exclude his native Barnwell County from this compulsory attendance. Despite his impassioned plea, he was outvoted 73 to 32.24 Blatt attempted to create a compromise bill in the State House that would have delayed integration until 1974, but federal courts ruled his plan unconstitutional in 1968.25 All public schools in South Carolina were integrated by fall 1970.
Later in his life, Blatt said his views were misinterpreted. His attack on compulsory school attendance, for instance, was not a direct attack on African Americans when referencing a “sixteen-year-old-so-and-so,” he claimed. Instead, “while I intended it to include Negroes, I did not mean to exclude whites.”26 Blatt also claimed, “I wasn't so strong against integration, because I was of the Jewish faith. There were people who wouldn't let me come around. I thought they [federal officials] were approaching the matter [integration] in the wrong way." “I mellow with age,” he also said. “I’m always open-minded. If somebody can convince me of mistakes in the past, I’m ready to correct them for the future.” When he resigned as the speaker of the House in 1973, Blatt said he was proud to live in a state where “no longer a man's religious views, political affiliations or the color of his skin can in any way prevent him from walking the road of life to a distance far beyond that which he expected in the years gone by…I am so glad that all of us are living in peace and harmony in South Carolina and the difficulty found in other states among groups of people does not exist in our state."27 In March 1974, he joined the large majority of House members who voted to make January 15th Martin Luther King Jr. Day.28
1 The State 28 Oct. 1973
2 A Spirit of Place: Buildings and Gardens of the University of South Carolina Columbia Campus, 1801-2016 (Columbia: Division of Administration and Finance, University of South Carolina, 2016), 65.
3 Clive Webb, Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003),
4 Solomon Blatt, “Speech on Jewish Rights,” c 1933-1939, Solomon Blatt Papers, South Carolina Political Collections, Columbia, South Carolina. In this speech Blatt claimed “here in the United States we do not have a system that without consideration for and without cause or excuse, punishes a whole group of its finest citizens.”
5 The State 15 May 1986
6 Henry H. Lesesne, A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940-2000 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001), 66, 266.
7 Timothy D. Renick, The Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association, 1991 (Columbia: The South Carolina Historical Association, 1991), 62
8 Quoted in Lesesne, A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940-2000, 127
9 Renick, “Solomon Blatt: ‘A Segregationist in Moderation?’” 64
10 Webb, Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights, 121
11 Lesesne, A History of the University of South Carolina, 396.
12 Lesesne, 234-6.
13 Lesesne, 45, 49
14 Solomon Blatt, Resignation as House Speaker, 06 Jun. 1973, Solomon Blatt Papers, SCPC
15 Lesesne, 32-6, 229, 244.
16 Webb, Fight Against Fear, 121
17 Renick, 63
18 The State, 27 Jan. 1956, quoted in Renick, 64
19 Solomon Blatt, “Speech before the Daughters of the Confederacy,” January 1960, Solomon Blatt Papers, SCPC.
20 Renick, 65
21 Solomon Blatt, “Speech to the Hebrew Benevolent Society,” 06 Apr 1959, Solomon Blatt Papers, SCPC
22 Quoted in Howard Simmons, Jewish Times: Voices of the Jewish Experience (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988), 233.
23 Renick, 68
24 Augusta Chronicle 24 Mar 1966, pg 67
25 Webb, 122.
26 Webb, 118.
27 Sol Blatt Obituary, The State 15 May 1986
28 Webb, 146.
29 The State 28 Oct. 1973
30 A Spirit of Place: Buildings and Gardens of the University of South Carolina Columbia Campus, 65.
31 Sol Blatt Obituary, The State, 15 May 1986.