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Remembering the Days — Happy birthday, USC: The university's centennial and bicentennial celebrations

Remembering the Days - episode 81

The University of South Carolina has been around a long time — long enough to celebrate its 100th and 200th birthdays with the 250th less than 30 years away.


Every birthday is special, but some are especially so, such as turning 21 or hitting the big 3-0 or the even bigger 5-0. Not many of us will make it to 100, but such milestones call for celebration on a truly grand scale.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back at two such occasions at the University of South Carolina — the institution’s centennial at the turn of the 20th century and the bicentennial at the dawn of the 21st century.

We’ll start with the centennial. We were still known as South Carolina College in 1901. That was exactly 100 years after the college had been chartered by the state Legislature, and on that 100th anniversary, a special train, festooned with banners that read ‘South Carolina College Centennial,’ rumbled down the track from Columbia to Charleston for the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition. On board were a bevy of alumni, faculty and friends of the college who made several speeches, mostly in honor of South Carolina College’s glory days before the Civil War.

The aftermath of the Civil War in general and the 1890s in particular had been hard years for Carolina. One of the governors at the time, Ben Tillman, had campaigned on a populist platform and he took special aim at what he thought was Carolina’s elitist position as a liberal arts college. The college’s funding had been slashed, and it wasn’t until Tillman was out of office that the institution began to recover.

Under the leadership of Benjamin Sloan, Carolina’s 13th president, the college started to turn the corner. Enrollment increased and there was talk of South Carolina College becoming, once again, a university. I say once again because the institution had been converted to the University of South Carolina for a few years in the 1870s and again in the late 1880s. Listen to episode 29 entitled "What’s in a Name" if you want to get the full story on Carolina’s multiple name changes. 

In 1905, which was the 100th anniversary of Carolina opening its doors to students, the institution held a three-day centennial celebration. It was mostly speechifying, the most common theme of which was that the time had come for South Carolina College to be, once and for all, a university.

The next year, 1906, the Legislature did just that. South Carolina College became, forever and always, the University of South Carolina.

Let’s fast forward 50 years and stop briefly at the university’s sesquicentennial — the institution’s 150th birthday. The most enduring memento of that event was a two-volume history of the university written by USC history professor Dan Hollis and published by the University of South Carolina Press. The two books are no longer in print, but you can easily find them online from used booksellers.

Now, we’ll fast forward to end of the end of the 20th century. Preparations for the university’s 200th birthday were underway, and it was clear this was going to be a big to-do.

Harry Lesesne: “Comparing it to something that happened in 1905, I mean, this was a completely different scale, a different order of magnitude. The university really prioritized it.”

That’s Harry Lesesne, who was associate director and historian of USC’s bicentennial celebration. For his Ph.D. dissertation, Harry wrote a book on the university’s history from 1940 to 2000.

Sally McKay: “It had been decided that this would be a year-long commemoration, an entire calendar year. And we started in January and it ended the following December.”

That’s Sally McKay, who was the executive director of the bicentennial. Sally and Harry, both USC graduates, worked with a lot of people to plan the bicentennial, especially USC’s 26th president at the time, John Palms, then-university trustee Othniel Wienges and professor Thorne Compton.

I sat down with Sally and Harry inside the dome at the top of McKissick, the room where their offices were 25 years ago, to look back at all of the moving parts that made up the bicentennial celebration. There were nearly 100 bicentennial-related events that took place from Jan. 10, 2001, until Dec. 19 of that year.

Those dates are significant because it was Jan. 10, 1805 when South Carolina College welcomed its first students and Dec. 19, 1801, when the college was chartered.

On Jan. 10, 2001, Dick Riley, the former governor and U.S. Secretary of Education, came to USC as the keynote speaker for the kickoff of the celebration. Several thousand alumni and friends of the university came to the Horseshoe for the opening day, and they were greeted by some unusual but familiar faces. Creative services staff had made life-sized cardboard cutouts of historical figures from the university’s past.

Sally McKay: “We had some cutouts of people who were known, and we had cutouts of people who were just people at the university. We had one of a cheerleader who I'm guessing was in the early '60s, and these were all cool black and white full-size cutouts. And we had placed them on the Horseshoe for that opening ceremony. And after that ceremony, a gentleman came up to me and he said — I think he was a young adult — and he said, 'That was my grandmother, that cheerleader was my grandmother.' And so we decided they were our little bicentennial menagerie of friends, and we took them around and we would have them at different events where it made sense.”

Among the many projects launched in honor of the bicentennial was a middle-school mentoring program called Meet in the Middle, a project called Search for Six that brought to campus six individuals who exemplified the Carolinian Creed and an essay contest for 8th and 11th grade students that focused on the university’s motto — "learning humanizes character and does not allow it to be cruel."

There were fun things, too, like the Hootie & the Blowfish concert at the fairgrounds, a bicentennial costume party for high school students and a project called Rooted in Great Teaching, that memorialized 50 professors who had been selected as the university’s best teaching faculty of the past.

Sally McKay: “We had a little ceremony out on the Horseshoe. I remember it was a beautiful day, and some of those little plate plaques are still there. And we, they were safe. We did not hurt any trees doing it because we were also, in a way, comparing great faculty to these great trees that they were so rooted, they were so much a part of our lives here at the university. And, oh, I just remember how grateful the families were that we would honor them in that way. And that was — that stood out to me as a real highlight.

Harry Lesesne: “I did a little blurb biography of every one of those faculty members. And doing that research you realized what an impact these faculty members had had on students at the university. And some some were 19th century faculty way back and others were contemporary. I guess they could no longer be living, right, when they were chosen. But they — many of them were within the living memory of students and faculty that were on the campus.”

Another project involved creating a digital timeline of USC’s history since 1801. Brooke Stillwell was the web developer in charge of the project, and she was determined to tell the whole story, or as much of it as she could find, of USC’s past.

Brooke Stillwell: “It started out Sally and Harry gave me a list of maybe 20 items and as I got into it, I thought, you know, I want to do not just the first person who did this, but the first female who did this, the first African American who did this. I wanted to really dig in there. And I really enjoyed the research part of it. It was a lot of fun to work with Elizabeth West in Archives, South Caroliniana Library.”

As part of her quest, Brooke looked for photographs or artwork that would represent every person or event on the university’s 200-year timeline. For example, she learned the name of the woman who was the first to earn a graduate degree from USC in 1903 — Jacqueline Seeger Epps — and she knew the name of the town Miss Epps hailed from — Blackstone, Virginia — but she couldn’t find a photograph.

Brooke Stillwell: “I thought, you know, Blackstone, Virginia, sounds like a little tiny place. So I'm going to write their Chamber of Commerce and see if there's anybody there who knows who she was. And it turned out that they put me in touch with her only surviving great-nephew or something. And they had a photograph of her which he sent to me digitally. And that was a coup for me. I thought that that was really cool. So I was able to put her on there.”

The bicentennial timeline that Brooke so painstakingly crafted nearly 25 years ago is no longer on the web, but elements of it continue on in the latest iteration of online pages devoted to the university’s history.

One of the signature events of the bicentennial celebration was an all-day summit to which all of the presidents of every college and university from South Carolina had been invited. Henrie Monteith Treadwell, one of the first three students to desegregate the university in 1963, was invited as the keynote speaker. Preparations had been made at multiple locations around the campus for the event scheduled on Sept. 11, 2001.

Sally McKay: “You called me from your desk here in the McKissick dome, and you said, I just remember, you said a plane has just hit one of the Twin Towers in New York. And I remember thinking, gosh, what a horrible accident. I'm so sorry, but Harry, we have an event to do. So do you have your venue ready? And you said, ‘No, no, no, no, this is not that. This is something different. Find a television.’ And I remember there was a little old black and white television set in Longstreet that we found and turned on the news.”

Needless to say, the bicentennial summit of college and university presidents was canceled as the magnitude of that day’s horrific terrorist attacks unfolded.

Harry Lesesne: “My recollection is we persevered and drove on. I think it took a little bit of the steam out of things and the enthusiasm. But, you know, to my recollection, the only thing we actually had to cancel was that one day's event.”

Sally McKay: “It put things in perspective. And I think that certain events thereafter, we all just we were all different people at that point, and not just those of us in the bicentennial, but everybody. And so we — I'm sure we acknowledged it in some ways, even after the fact, in different events.”

With a more somber tone, the bicentennial observance continued that fall. There was a time capsule buried on the Horseshoe on Dec. 7 that will be reopened in 2051. Check out Episode 60 if you want to know more about time capsules at USC.

The Dec. 17 commencement ceremony at the Carolina Coliseum featured indoor fireworks and the closing ceremony took place on a chilly December 19 morning. Faculty, administrators, trustees and friends of the university braved the brisk wind to march from the Horseshoe to the south steps of the State House where they were joined by then-Gov. Jim Hodges and members of the Legislature. The theme of remarks made on that cold day focused on the university’s history, future and its relationship with the state of South Carolina.

Well that’s a whirlwind look back at USC’s centennial and bicentennial celebrations. What’s the university’s next big birthday? Well, USC will be 250 years old in 2051. I had to look this up — such an anniversary is called a semiquincentennial or sestercentennial or a quarter millennial. I don’t think I’ll be around for that one, but I hope the university and its alumni will take the time to look back on all that the graduates of this institution of higher learning have achieved since 1801.

On the next Remembering the Days, we’re going back to the 1970s when buildings on the Horseshoe were quite literally falling apart and a massive effort was launched to renovate and restore the historic heart of the campus.

Thanks for listening today, forever to thee.