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Remembering the Days — Forgotten pioneers: Students who arrived immediately after desegregation began

Remembering the Days - episode 63

Sixty years ago the University of South Carolina admitted three Black students in its historic desegregation of 1963. While many remember their names — Henrie Monteith, Robert Anderson and James Solomon —  the names of many of the students who would follow in their footsteps have been forgotten. Here's a look back at what campus life was like for those early pioneers.


Sixty years ago, the University of South Carolina became one of the last major public universities in the American South to open its doors to Black students. Other universities had already desegregated but with a backdrop of rioting and other violence.

At USC, Henrie Monteith, Robert Anderson and James Solomon were the first to be enrolled, and even though it was a long time coming, the university’s historic desegregation happened peacefully, without the ugly confrontations that occurred in other Southern states. A statue of those first three students is planned for installation on USC’s campus this fall, the 60th anniversary of their arrival.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back not at 1963, but 1964, the second year of the university’s desegregation when a small second contingent of Black students enrolled.

I’ve often wondered what it was like for those students whose names are not well known and whose admission to the university did not generate headlines. What was their experience at a university, which, for nearly all of its existence, had been open only to white students?

Jim Bowers and A.P. Williams III, also known as Archie to his friends and family, were among that small contingent of Black students who enrolled in 1964. The two men have quite different stories of their experiences at USC, but both personal narratives help to paint the larger picture of what the university was like in those early years of desegregation.

Jim Bowers: "I wasn't quite sure what I was going to face. But having experienced academic success at first, I felt pretty comfortable that I could I could handle the work. In terms of the environment, and I had been accustomed to being jeered by whites and arrested for participating in civil rights sit-ins in high school.

So, I was no stranger to hostile, unwelcome attitudes and treatment by whites. I had participated in the March on Washington the prior summer in 1963. And I was a believer in Dr. Martin Luther King's nonviolent, passive resistance strategy. So I felt that with my sit-in activities and my belief in Dr. King, I felt that I was armed psychologically to confront whatever I might experience at USC.”

That’s Jim Bowers, who enrolled in 1964 as a transfer student from Fisk University, an historically black institution in Nashville. He was assigned a room in Maxcy College near the Horseshoe.

Jim Bowers: "In 1964 when I arrived, there were four Black male students who were housed at Maxcy College. Two of us were on the second floor, two on the third atop each other. Bob Anderson from Greenville — he roomed with a fellow from Charleston by the name of William Washington. I roomed on the second floor. I'm from Orangeburg. I roomed on the second floor with an individual by the name of Richard Cross, also from Charleston. So the four of us became a closely knit group. Actually, living in Maxey College was pleasant overall. You know, the predictable pranks continued, knocking on the door, etc. But we didn't experience any violence which was very, very key."

Archie Williams had been raised in a family steeped in the civil rights movement. His father, A.P. Williams Jr., had been president of the state chapter of the NAACP, and he wanted his son to go to USC, to join other Black students who were part of the university’s continuing desegregation. Archie had just graduated in 1964 with stellar grades from Booker T. Washington, a prominent all-Black high school located just across Blossom Street from the university campus.

He immediately joined the USC Marching Band, becoming the band’s first Black member. Archie’s wife, Calvernetta, remembers how protective the band members were of their new trombone player.

Calvernetta Williams: “All his white friends called him Archie in the band, and they would say, ‘We're going to protect you. We'll protect you.’ ”

While he never felt threatened when he was a student at USC, Archie did recall a few times when a random white student directed an ugly racial slur towards him in the hallways. The fact that he lived off campus no doubt shielded him from harassment outside of class.

What really had him struggling was his grades. Though he had been an honors student in high school, the first semester of classes was a jolt.

A.P.  “Archie” Williams III: “Going along into the fall I got three 'C's and an 'F' and it kind of shook me up a little bit.”

In Archie’s second semester, he earned more "C"s and another failing grade, and he felt that some of his professors were not being fair in grading his work.

Archie’s father, who had insisted that his son attend USC, decided to remedy the situation by sending Archie to a mortuary school in Ohio. Archie would then be professionally trained to work in the family’s funeral home business — and the change, his father reasoned, might boost his son’s self confidence.

Calvernetta Williams: "And so he immediately went on to Cincinnati School of Mortuary Science. He went there and graduated cum laude and then he came back and went to South Carolina, and, I guess, to prove to himself that ‘I'm going to finish the school now,’ because now he built up his confidence again. So he came back to South Carolina and he went into business administration and graduated."

That’s the short version of Archie Williams’ story — he struggled academically his first year at USC, attended mortuary school and graduated there with honors, regained his confidence and eventually returned to Carolina — and succeeded. But there was a larger narrative going on behind the scenes.

USC officials had been determined to avoid the violence that had happened at other universities when desegregation began. And while Carolina succeeded in that regard, the university did little to assimilate the new Black students into campus life.

Bobby Donaldson: “So that's what the headline said, that, you know, ‘The university integrates without incident,’ but it was not business as normal. And when you talk to the students who come in, it was really traumatic, it was really challenging, it was not normal at all. And I suspect for certain faculty that was the case, there was no real training about how do you teach an integrated audience? How do you receive or welcome and mentor a student of color? And so the support network was not there at the time. And so you have these young men and women trying to navigate in a world that was overwhelmingly foreign to them with very little guidance and support.”

That’s Bobby Donaldson, a USC history professor and executive director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research. Donaldson says while little had been done at the institutional level to help Black students adjust to campus life, the students themselves found their own allies.

For Archie Williams, it was Ada Thomas, a beloved advisor and professor in the School of Business who assisted countless students in her more than 40-year career at the university.

Calvernetta Williams: "He could go to talk to her about anything. And she would help him, and she would just — he would discuss some of his problems that he was having and she kind of guided him all the way. She was wonderful. He said, ‘That's my white mama at USC,’ because she helped him and guided him and encouraged him. She really encouraged him and told him and he would talk about what teachers and she would tell him sometimes you have to dodge certain people to get what you want. And she really helped him and encouraged him so much."

With encouragement from Ada Thomas and others, Archie continued his studies at Carolina, at times working nights night as a computer programmer for an insurance company while attending class by day. He finished with a degree in business administration. But that first year of academic struggle still gnawed at him.

Calvernetta Williams: "He refused to go to commencement. He just refused to do it. He always kept that first and second semester in his mind. And he said, 'I'm not going back there except to get my degree for myself and I'm not going to march' — because he said he felt like he was cheated his first year."

For Jim Bowers, navigating campus life as a Black student in 1964 required a high degree of situational awareness. He says he and other Black students did not attend football and basketball games because they feared violence if they dared to show up at the football stadium or the old field house where basketball games were played. And while he sometimes ventured off campus, he learned that could be a dangerous proposition depending on the location.

Jim Bowers: "I often frequented a restaurant on Gervais Street around the corner from Maxcy College when I when I lived there. I had gone there on multiple occasions during the during the day. Never went there at night. So on that particular night, after I finished eating and paying the cashier, upon leaving, I noticed three hostile whites following me out of the door. I don't know whether they were students or townies, but anticipating that I would be accosted before I got back to Maxcy College, I immediately turned around, reentered the restaurant and I sat at the counter for about a half hour, even though I wasn't ordering anything. The proprietor of the restaurant knew exactly what was going on, and he allowed me to sit there without me having to order anything to ensure my safety. I learned a lesson from that incident, and that was never go off campus to a white-owned restaurant at night alone. There's always safety in numbers. I let my guard down that night, but I never forgot it. And after that, I never put myself in that situation."

Avoiding dangerous situations off campus was one of the guantlets that Black students, especially men, had to learn to navigate. Fortunately, there were some individuals on campus who helped to create safe spaces.

Jim Bowers: “Now to rectify this social void, an individual by the name of Ted Lavine — he was administrative assistant to the dean of students — Ted Levine and his wife, Libby, extended themselves to make black students feel welcome and included. They invited us to their home for dinner. They planned social events. In fact, they often sponsored trips to Penn Center, an African American cultural center and educational center on St. Helena Island near Beaufort, to give us an outlet to the isolation on campus.”

During his time at USC, Jim says the campus climate gradually improved for Black students.

Jim Bowers: “The university was protective of us, but the university didn't do a whole lot to integrate us into campus life. By the time I reached my senior year, which was ’66-‘67, this was the year when the Black male students were integrated into regular dorm life. I roomed in the Honeycombs dormitory with an individual, Zach Clarkson, who was from Columbia. There were community baths. We didn't experience any problems while living in that integrated dorm environment.”

Along with becoming more fully integrated into campus life, Jim forged friendships with several faculty members, most notably Glenn Abernathy and Don Fowler, both in political science.

Jim Bowers: “In fact, Professors Fowler and Abernathy strongly encouraged me to attend Harvard Law School, and they remained cheerleaders, throughout my professional life."

After graduating from USC, Jim would go on to attend Harvard Law School in 1967 and a short time after earning his law degree, he was recruited to return to the University of South Carolina as the first Black faculty member in the School of Law. He taught several years in the law school in the 1970s, then went on to a long career in corporate law.

The number of Black students enrolling at USC started out small, three in 1963, perhaps a dozen more in 1964. But the number kept increasing, and campus administrators belatedly put more programs in place to more properly assimilate minority students into campus life. By 1971, the first Black student body president was elected, and Black students began to feel at home on a campus where they had, at first, felt like aliens.

Here's USC history professor Bobby Donaldson.

Bobby Donaldson: “Many of these young men and women who come to Carolina and other places, they knew they were part of a test. Some of them understood that they were being measured, being measured from family members at home who some were very proud that their children were now knocking down the doors of the university. Some were deeply concerned about what this would mean physically and emotionally and the emotional wounds, I think are some to unpack. But they also knew that they had to work harder, they had to jump higher.”

I’ve only scratched the surface today in telling the story of those early years of desegregation at USC. There are many other voices, many other perspectives in this collective story of individual determination. A story of students who, though they were not welcomed with open arms to campus, found allies nonetheless and succeeded. It’s also the story of a university that could have done more early on to embrace its new students, but eventually did so and became a far more welcoming place to all.

On the next episode of Remembering the Days, we’re going to shift gears a bit and play a game of true or false. You’re going to hear outlandish-sounding stories about the University of South Carolina and try to decide if they really happened.

That’s next time on Remembering the Days. I’m Chris Horn, forever to thee.