Remembering the Days: Call it courage — the story of Chester Travelstead
Remembering the Days podcast — episode 23
By Chris Horn, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-777-3687
In the summer of 1955, one year after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, the dean of the School of Education stood up and spoke out for what he knew was right. Even though Chester Travelstead lost his job, he held fast to his own integrity, and today the College of Education highly esteems his legacy.
It’s one thing to look back at something that happened many years ago and say — “That was wrong, that never should have been. What were people thinking back then?”
It’s another thing entirely to speak up in the moment, not years later when it’s safe and everyone agrees, but in the moment and unequivocally say, “This is wrong!” — even if there are major consequences.
I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re going back to 1955 when an individual at the University of South Carolina spoke up for what he knew was right — and lost his job as a result.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that said racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. All nine Supreme Court justices agreed, but a lot of people in power in the American South did not share that view.
One of them was George Bell Timmerman, an avowed segregationist who was then governor of South Carolina. No surprise there — a lot of governors and legislators in Southern states wanted to maintain separate schools for white and black children, and a lot of them, Gov. Timmerman included, publicly stated their opposition to the Supreme Court ruling.
Here’s where the plot thickens. The School of Education at the University of South Carolina had been in sad shape in the early 1950s with only a handful of professors and low morale. But in 1953 — a year before the Supreme Court ruling — the university hired a new education dean named Chester Travelstead. By the next year, the number of full-time education professors had increased from five to 16, and student enrollment in the School of Education went up, too.
The new dean was happy to be part of a reinvigorated School of Education. But he was not particularly pleased to be the dean of education in a state where the governor was basically saying, “We’re not going to go along with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that segregation is wrong. We like segregation just fine, thank you.”
So Chester Travelstead, dean of the School of Education, decided this was what we might now call "a teachable moment." He wrote a letter to George Bell Timmerman, governor of South Carolina. The letter was polite but to the point. He asked the governor what kind of example he was setting for the state’s schoolchildren, saying, quote, “Can we on Monday tell them to obey the law and then on Tuesday tell them they don’t need to obey the law, that it is right to circumvent the law as long as they don’t get caught?” unquote.
The governor, as you might imagine, was not amused. He wrote a letter to Donald Russell, the president of the university, and told him in no uncertain terms that Chester Travelstead was a bad influence at the university. President Russell hauled Travelstead into his office and told him, "No more letter writing." He said, quote, “Such controversial matters make politicians mad. You don’t change a governor’s opinion on such a matter by writing him a letter.”
Two months later, July 1955, Chester Travelstead got a big raise and everyone thought things had blown over. But then Travelstead spoke out against segregation in a public lecture to the university’s summer session students. “It is my firm conviction,” he said, “that enforced segregation of the races in our public schools can no longer be justified on any basis and should therefore be abolished as soon as practicable.”
There was polite, tepid applause at the end of his speech, but a thundering response soon after. Marion Gressette, a powerful state representative, heard about the speech and wrote a letter to Gov. Timmerman saying, “This man’s attitude is definitely wrong. The state of South Carolina should not continue to employ him in any capacity.”
President Russell tried to get Travelstead to recant his statements about segregation but the dean refused.
Two weeks later, the Executive Committee of the university’s Board of Trustees fired Travelstead, claiming it was not in the university’s best interest to renew his appointment as dean the following summer. Travelstead was replaced as dean of the School of Education by a man named William Savage who was said to have, quote “impeccable segregationist credentials.”
But that wasn’t the end of the sordid affair. Three promising instructors in the School of Education resigned in protest of Travelstead’s firing. Two years later, a nontenured philosophy assistant professor published an article that spoke out against segregation and he, too, was dismissed.
It wasn’t just faculty getting into trouble. A univesity student named R.L. Morton was a page in the Legislature and wrote an editorial in the Gamecock student newspaper criticizing the legislators for their attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling. “I am ashamed to be called a Southerner,” he wrote. A week later, Morton was fired as a page.
It would be several more years before schools in South Carolinan were truly desegregated. It was 1963 when the University of South Carolina admitted its first Black students since the brief Reconstruction Era.
But even though the wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly, they do turn. There is now a room in the Museum of Education at the University of South Carolina that’s named in honor of Chester Travelstead, who, by the way, was immediately hired as dean of the School of Education at the University of New Mexico and had a long and productive career there. There’s also the Chester Travelstead Award for Courage in Education. It was first awarded by the University of South Carolina in 2007, the year after Travelstead died , and it’s been awarded to individuals four more times since then. Here’s Toby Jenkins, a College of Education professor and director of the museum.
Toby Jenkins: I actually think courage is the perfect word. That's actually the word that we in the College of Education now use to describe Chester Travestead in anything that we have created to acknowledge and honor him.
Jenkins says what made Travelstead courageous was his decision to speak out when the culture around him was saying, "Don’t make waves. Just go with the flow or you might regret it."
Toby Jenkins: And I think that still is pervasive in our society that we very much have inherited it and understand it across races, that regardless of what my opinion might be, I don't want to speak up or I don't want to say anything because of what the repercussions or the backlash on me might be. It's easy, decades later to say, oh, no, that was wrong. But to do it when no one else is standing up and saying it; when, you know, the risk is so high for you speaking the truth — that's definitely courage.
If Chester Travelstead could still write a lesson plan about his experiences so long ago, we don’t know what he would say, but I think we can guess that it would include something about personal integrity and respect for others — and speaking up. Which kind of sounds like the Carolinian Creed.
That’s all for this episode of Remembering the Days. We’ve got some cool episodes coming up later this spring, including some remembrances from a former first lady of the university. Hope you can join us for those trips down memory lane.
This episode is sponsored by the University of South Carolina Press, which published Henry Lesesne’s book, A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940-2000, in which you can learn more about Chester Travelstead and many other interesting figures from the university’s past.
For the University of South Carolina and Remembering the Days, I’m Chris Horn. See you next time and forever to thee.
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