Skip to Content

University History

Appendix 11: Research Reports on Building Names

Gressette Room in Harper College

Harper College on the historic Horseshoe was built in 1848. Its third floor was the original meeting place for the Euphradian debate society, whose first member was William Harper (class of 1808). By 1986, the Euphradian Society was no longer active and the Euphradian Hall was used for storage. In January, the University of South Carolina announced that it would be “renovated and opened up to use for the entire USC community.” It was later renamed the Gressette Room after former Euphradian member and deceased state legislator L. Marion Gressette (1902-1984). It is now used as a venue that can hold up to 60 people and is managed by the Russell House.1 

Gressette’s connection to the University of South Carolina:

  • Alumnus: class of 1924, honorary doctorate in 1977
  • Member of the Euphradian Society
  • Member of Senate Education Committee, 1939-1984, chairman 1951-65, assisted in appropriations toward the university.
  • Used position as state legislator to encourage firing of Dean of Education Chester Travelstead when the dean spoke out against segregation, saying that Travelstead’s views conflicted “with the overwhelming sentiment of the white and colored people of the State.”
  • Used legislative position to save the School of Medicine in 1976.

Gressette summary:

  • Was a staunch segregationist: was chairman of the South Carolina School Committee, formed to fight integration from 1951 to 1966. Was colloquially known as the Gressette Committee, and most of his recommended legislation to slow or stop integration was passed by the state assembly.
  • Strongly endorsed White Citizens Councils formed in opposition to integration.
  • Prevented South Carolina from ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment.
  • Was accused of racial discrimination when he waited for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to expire in 1982 (it did not) before redrawing districts.


Biography

Marion Gressette was born on February 11, 1902, in Orangeburg County near St. Matthews to John Thomas Gressette and Rosa Emily Wannamaker. He attended and graduated from the University of South Carolina with an undergraduate degree in law in 1924, and later received an honorary doctorate from the university in 1977. He married Florence Howell on August 18, 1927, and they had one son: Lawrence Marion Gressette Jr.

Gressette was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives for Calhoun County from 1925 to 1928. He was not re-elected in 1928, but won again for the 1931-1932 term. In 1936, Gressette was elected to the state senate, where he would serve for almost fifty years until his death in 1984. Gressette was a longtime member of many influential committees: Judiciary from 1937 to 1984, serving as chairman from 1954 to 1984; Education from 1939 to 1984, chairman from 1951 to 1956; Natural Resources from 1941 to 1953, chairman from 1945 to 1950; and Rural Electrification from 1942 to 1975. He was president pro tempore from 1972 to 1984.

Alongside Edgar Brown and Sol Blatt Sr., Gressette is viewed as one of the most important figures in South Carolina politics in the 20th century. A reporter once described him as “the 20th century embodiment of the conservative lawyer-planter class who ruled South Carolina before the Civil War.”2 Under his tenure, the Senate Judiciary Committee came to be known as “Gressette’s Graveyard” as he rejected bills before they reached the state Senate floor to preserve the status quo.

A staunch segregationist, Gressette petitioned for and later served as chairman of the South Carolina School Committee, which strategized legal means for fighting desegregation rulings from 1951 to 1966. This committee became known as the Gressette Committee. “Virtually all” of the Gressette Committee’s recommended legislation for slowing if not stopping integration was passed by the state assembly.3

Once legal means for resisting integration were exhausted, Gressette eventually sat with an integrated delegation from Calhoun County at the 1970 state Democratic Convention.4 He remained devoted to the language of states’ rights against the federal government when he prevented South Carolina’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. If the ERA was ratified, he claimed, women would “lose their support for alimony” and the ERA could “destroy privacy. It could mean there would only be one restroom” for both genders.5

Gressette died from heart failure on March 1, 1984, at the age of 82. Despite his age, the death was sudden, and Gressette was still an active senator and “the most powerful man in politics” at his time of death.6

Gressette and Segregation

Gressette petitioned for a School Committee in 1951, even before the Briggs v. Elliott and Brown v. Board of Education decisions, which subsequently caused the “Gressette Committee” to ramp up its opposition to integration. He denied that any South Carolina citizen was “denied the ballot by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin” and stated that any federal legislation on voting rights “sole purpose is to advance the political careers of those who have become subservient to a coalition of minorities by seeking to further the cause of integration of the races.” Gressette believed that segregation provided “equal opportunity” and that it was this separation that prevented “interracial gang wars in our state.”7 The Gressette Committee’s mission was explicit: “we shall recommend to the Governor and General Assembly continued resistance by every lawful means,” claimed Gressette. The committee used legislative proposals and legal stall tactics, such as abolishing the compulsory attendance law, denying state aid to schools forced by court order to integrate, and eliminating the automatic rehiring of public school teachers.”8

Gressette strongly endorsed South Carolina White Citizen’s Councils similarly devoted to opposing integration, likening them to “the military forces of national defense…we need the active advice and assistance of organized groups…who are prepared to present ideas and prevent lawlessness.” 9 In 1959, he promised these Citizen’s Councils that the state government would close public schools if the state’s right to operate them was denied.10

Gressette used his position to warn school officials and administrators against hiring anyone who opposed segregation. He urged the university president to fire College of Education Dean Travelstead for his anti-segregation speeches and told Clarendon school district officials to carefully consider “leanings on the segregation issue” before selecting a new trustee.11 In 1963, however, Gressette urged his Senate colleagues to keep Clemson open rather than close the school to avoid integrating through the admittance of Harvey Gantt.12 He urged nonviolence during Clemson’s integration but did not give up his fight against segregation: “We may have lost the battle but not the war. But this war cannot be won by violence or inflammatory speeches. I have preached peace and good order for too long to change my thinking.”13 When outgoing governor Ernest Hollings adopted a moderate stance on segregation in his farewell address in January 1963, Gressette issued a terse “no comment.”14

By 1966, most legal oppositions to integration had been exhausted, and the Gressette Committee received heavy criticism from the legislature over its legal expenditures. Gressette and the legislature called for the committee to be ended. Gressette never condemned the committee’s work, observing in his later years that “the committee’s real accomplishment was in preventing violence such as occurred in some other southern states.”15

It quickly became inexpedient for Gressette to oppose integration. Following reapportionment, he actively campaigned in his new, and heavily Black, state Senate district. When a portion of Orangeburg County was added to his district, Gressette became a leading legislative patron of South Carolina State College, the state’s leading HBCU. At the 1970 state Democratic convention, he sat with an integrated delegation from Calhoun County. In 1972, he played a large part in drafting legislation to establish a permanent state agency, the Human Affairs Commission, to work toward preventing racial discrimination. Upon becoming president pro tempore of the Senate, Gressette hosted a cocktail party and invited “more than a score” of African American attendees, an action that contemporaries thought “would never be possible” a decade beforehand. When his longtime adversary Matthew Perry ran for Congress in 1974, Gressette was the key speaker at a fundraiser on his behalf and praised Perry in unprepared remarks.16  In 1978, he supported legislation that proclaimed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a state holiday.17

In the early 1980s, Gressette encountered controversy over the reapportionment of the state senate. The state assembly was charged with redrawing the 46 districts to satisfy population changes and Black voter interests. Black civic leaders and state senators accused Gressette of halting the reallocation of Senate seats and passing the governor’s two term succession bill in its stead. The stalemate and stalling during the reapportionment process was so notable that the state NAACP threatened to sue.18 Gressette blamed the Senate fight over how members were elected on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he dubbed “one of the most vicious pieces of legislation that has ever come out of a legislative branch…there were no problems with how senators were elected before the civil rights movement sought to put blacks in office.”19

After Gressette’s death in 1984, it was revealed that Gressette “delayed redrawing state Senate districts because he thought the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] would expire” in 1982. The Voting Rights Act, however, did not expire as planned. State Representative Mary Miles and Black Legislative Caucus Chairman John Matthews claimed that Gressette and others “did it intentionally” to keep African Americans out of the state senate by waiting until two years after the 1980 census. Others claimed it was merely a “political decision.”20

Gressette and the University of South Carolina

Gressette graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1924 and received an honorary doctorate in 1977. While he attended, he was an active member of the Euphradian Literary Society. He was also an ex officio Board of Trustees member due to his high-ranking position in the state senate. As such, Gressette frequently intervened and assisted in maintaining segregation at the university.

In the early 1950s, several Black students applied to the University, and Gressette was one of the board members who voted to deny their admission, falsely claiming that the state provided “equally comparable facilities” at South Carolina State. In 1958, a large number of students from Benedict College and other HBCUs again attempted to apply to the University, and Gressette provided university president Sumwalt explicit wording on how to address and decline these Black applicants. [21]

In 1955, the dean of the School of Education, Chester Travelstead, spoke out against segregation in the state, first in a letter to segregationist George Bell Timmerman and then in a public lecture to the university’s summer session students. Gressette wrote a letter to Governor Timmerman urging that Travelstead be fired:

“This man’s attitude is definitely wrong. The State of South Carolina should not continue to employ him at the University in any capacity. I do not think it is fair to our young people to expose them to his personal opinion on this important subject, which is in conflict with the overwhelming sentiment of the white and colored people of the State.”

Travelstead was fired by the executive committee of the Board of Trustees two weeks later, and they then hired a man with “impeccable segregationist credentials” in his place. At least four faculty members left the School of Education as a result.22

In 1976, Gressette used his position in the state senate to save the funding of the university’s medical school.23

Gressette Room

The Gressette Room is located on the third floor of Harper College on the Horseshoe. It was designed as a meeting space for the Euphradian Society, and named Euphradian Hall. In the 1980s Euphradian Hall was renovated and named after Gressette, a former member. It is now used as a venue that can hold up to 60 people, and is managed by the Russell House. 

A Senate Office Building was dedicated to Gressette in 1979 at 1101 Pendleton Street.24

 


1 Amy Delpo, “Club loses its license in mix-up,” The Gamecock, 24 Jan. 1986. By 1994, the Hall was named for Gressette. Local papers do not report the name change, however.

2 Freeman Belser, “Gressette, Lawrence Marion” South Carolina Encyclopedia Online 15 Aug. 2016

3 John Carl West, “Untitled Memoir,” c1994, John Carl West Papers, South Carolina Political Collections 

4 L. Marion Gressette Papers Finding Aid, South Carolina Political Collections 

5 “What will the ERA mean? Opinions differ,” The Gamecock 4 Apr. 1977

6 Columbia Record, 24 Apr. 1984

7 “Statement of L. Marion Gressette and Robert E. McNair, Chairmen of Judiciary Committees of the South Carolina State Senate and House of Representatives, Respectively, and Thomas H. Pope, Chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Executive Committee” 20 Apr. 1959, Robert E. McNair Papers, South Carolina Political Collections, 

8 Jeremy Richards, “Gressette Committee,” South Carolina Encyclopedia Online 15 Aug. 2016.

9 Clipping, 24 Jun. 1959, William D. Workman Papers, South Carolina Political Collections

10 “Citizens Councils Told: SC to Close Its Schools If Right to Operate Denied,” The State 24 Jun 1959,

11 The candidate in question for Trustee of the Clarendon School district received a PhD from the University of Wisconsin and “was a Julius Rosenwald Fellow in 1947 and this is not so good.” These were reasons enough for Gressette to dissuade them from hiring him. L. Marion Gressette to Robert McC. Figg and Dr. G. Creighton Frampton, 26 May 1956, Robert Mc. Figg Papers, South Carolina Political Collections

12 “L. Marion Gressette Is Dead; Ex-Segregationist in South,” The New York Times 3 Mar. 1984

13 Gressette Papers Finding Aid, South Carolina Political Collections

14 Henry H. Lesesne, A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940-2000 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001), 160.

15 Gressette Papers Finding Aid, South Carolina Political Collections

16 Jack Bass and Walter DeVries, The Transformation of Southern Politics: Social Change and Political Consequence Since 1945 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1995), 259

17 Gressette Papers Finding Aid

18 The Gamecock 17 Mar. 1980

19 “Gressette talks on Senate,” The Gamecock 23 Apr. 1980

20 Columbia Record, 27 Apr. 1984

21 Lesesne, A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940-2000, 117, 130.

22 L. Marion Gressette to George Bell Timmerman, 19 Aug. 1955, in Lesesne, 125.

23 Lesesne, 244

24 “L. Marion Gressette Building,” Historic Columbia Foundation.


Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.

©