COLUMBIA, SC - — The iconic black-and-white photograph of three African-American students integrating the University of South Carolina gave way Wednesday to a modern portrait of progress, as hundreds of people of all races and backgrounds gathered to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of desegregation.
The memories were rooted in the past, but as Henrie Monteith Treadwell and James L. Solomon Jr. turned over spades of dirt for a USC garden commemorating the year, 1963, that they integrated the state’s flagship university, they had their eyes on the future.
Fifty years is a long time, Solomon said, and the landscape is vastly altered from the days of his Jim Crow youth and the moment he stepped onto the USC campus as a 33-year-old graduate mathematics student, but “the past must also be used as a measure of where we can be.”
That theme resonated Wednesday as USC president Harris Pastides acknowledge Treadwell, Solomon and the late Robert G. Anderson of Greenville as civil rights heroes in ending the segregation that had defined the university since Reconstruction. The three, he said, had “scaled a mountain” in walking up the nine steps of the Osborne Administration Building Sept. 11, 1963.
The three were honored at a morning ceremony outside the administration building that drew university officials, professors and students, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest F. Finney. Then Treadwell and Solomon walked to the side of Osborne to break ground on a commemorative garden that will include a topiary in the trio’s honor designed by Bishopville artist Pearl Fryar. The topiary, Fryar said, will focus on unity.
A poem will be etched into garden steps by poet Nikki Finney, Judge Finney’s daughter and now a USC professor.
“I don’t know what I’m going to put on those steps. I’m thinking about it long and hard,” she said. “I know it is going to take a heart change before we get to the next rung of steps, the next step up. I don’t want a place where they just let me in. I’m grateful to be let in the door but I also want someone to listen to me when I say a hard thing that needs to be said.”
She said her words will be focused on changing the “soul of a place.”
Treadwell, 67, a professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine whose lawsuit argued by the late civil rights great Matthew J. Perry opened the doors to African-Americans, and Solomon, a longtime state official and former aide to South Carolina governors, were honored throughout the day at private functions aimed at showcasing the progress the university has made since the 1960s.
The university plans to mark the anniversary throughout the coming year with exhibitions and presentations.
They will likely share memories of “I-Day,” Sept. 11, 1963, when then-university president Thomas F. Jones Jr., dean of students Charles H. Witten and other administrators carved out a plan to ensure that USC opened its doors to African-Americans without violence. The university has taken pride in the fact that it avoided the riots that erupted at Ole Miss, although Pastides acknowledged that reaction on campus to the three was mixed. Anderson bore the brunt of the slurs and animosity and did not return to campus until 25 years had passed.
Before the festivities Wednesday, Raymond Weston of Chapel Hill, N.C., couldn’t help but ponder what might have been.
Weston, 71, tried to integrate USC in 1960, three years before a federal judge ruled that USC had to admit Monteith, and by extension Anderson and Solomon.
Weston and Lloyd Williams were freshmen at South Carolina State, the black college up the road in Orangeburg. They made the trip to Columbia together in April 1960, although how they were picked to make the attempt is lost to memory now.
“We were part of the civil rights movement at State and we were selected to apply for admission to the university,” Weston said Monday. “I can’t tell you how the selection was made.”
Upon arrival, they sat down with USC’s registrar, who informed the pair that the university was out of applications.
“He said, when we get some, we will send you one,” Weston, a Columbia native who now lives in Durham, N.C., said. The two dutifully turned over their home addresses.
“To this day, I have never received one,” Weston noted wryly. “We knew what the meaning was.”
Weston, a graduate of Columbia’s Booker T. Washington High School, stayed at S.C. State for another year and then entered the Air Force, where he embarked on a 20-year military career.
He said he never dwelled on the lost opportunity.
“I wasn’t disappointed or frustrated,” he said. “Everybody, to my knowledge, had a part to play in trying to achieve certain things. That was our part to try to gain admission into the university.”
Weston said “human curiosity” brought him back to the campus Wednesday, so he could meet the students who did gain entrance in 1963 and commemorate the progress that has been made since. About 11 percent of the undergraduate student body in Columbia is African-American.
For the contemporary USC student, the commemoration provoked thoughtful reflection on a period of time that is now hard to fathom.
“It’s crazy how far we have come in 50 years,” said Mike Matulis, a junior from Boynton Beach, Fla. He and Megan Kent, a senior from Frederick, Md., attended the commemoration as part of a social work class. “We both play sports here and we don’t see any division,” he said.