Nearly 50 years after he integrated Clemson University, Harvey Gantt returned to his alma mater Tuesday and recalled a historic journey that took South Carolina out of the depths of segregation, propelled Clemson into the modern era and put him on a path to a flourishing architectural and political career.
Gantt, looking out over a multicultural gathering of faculty and staff at Clemson’s opening academic convocation, said five decades ago he could not have imagined the changes that would take place on this land grant campus that once educated white males for military service.
“I knew before I registered that there was something special and different about this place and that going to school here would be a positive, life-changing experience,” said Gantt, who entered Clemson in January 1963 after a court battle that pitted civil rights lawyer Matthew Perry against the state of South Carolina, which had long championed separation of the races.
While campuses in other Southern states were roiled by violence as African-American students broke higher education’s barriers, Gantt, a Charleston native, said he knew his arrival on that cold winter day would be peaceful, because Clemson’s administration and student leaders had cleared a path for him.
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“There was rigorous public discussion and debate covering a range of topics – debate over whether I had a right to go to Clemson, debate over whether my entrance would impact Clemson’s great and wonderful traditions, debate over how South Carolina and the deep South would accommodate my admission,” he said.
Some of the state’s most ardent segregationists had even urged students to isolate him to discourage him from remaining on campus.
“But the prevailing opinion of student leaders, I think, gave me courage,” Gantt said. He said then-president Robert C. Edwards “said if nothing else, the proud traditions of Clemson would be maintained, and the laws would be obeyed and I would be treated, as much as possible, like any other student.”
Student body president McKee Thomason said that’s important because the majority of today’s student body, born long after the civil rights struggle, have no knowledge of what Gantt went through to enter Clemson.
“My role is to make sure students are aware of how different the world was,” he said.
Gantt was 19 when he approached Perry, then a civil rights lawyer who represented Gantt and other high school youths arrested at a Charleston demonstration, saying he wanted to study at Clemson. The year was 1960 and the state was so determined to maintain racial separation that it paid out-of-state tuition for some black students to keep them out of all-white USC and Clemson.
At the urging of his high school guidance counselor, he enrolled at Iowa State University, receiving a $149.51 quarterly differential from the state because no black S.C. college offered architecture. But Gantt realized early on that the cold Midwest was not for him.
“I was a child of the South. It was the South where I wanted to be,” he told Clemson historian Jerry Reel.
He applied to transfer to Clemson in January 1961 and was encouraged to do so until Clemson officials received his high school transcript from the all-black Burke High School in Charleston, his hometown.
Clemson rejected him, saying his Iowa transcript was incomplete, but he was still invited, with Perry and another black applicant, to come to Clemson for an interview.
As Gantt’s lawsuit wound through federal courts, the Clemson president and state officials also began making plans for the inevitable, even as they threw up legal roadblocks. Then-Gov. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, in his final address to the Legislature, acknowledged the state was “running out of courts.” And he admonished that “this General Assembly must make clear South Carolina’s choice, a government of laws rather than a government of men ... This should be done with dignity. It must be done with law and order.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court denied Clemson’s last appeal, they were determined to enroll Gantt without the bloodshed that had marred the entrance of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.
So on Jan. 28, 1963, Gantt and Perry, who went on to become the South’s first black federal judge, drove the 120 miles to Clemson, with highway patrolmen leading the way and police aircraft overhead. There was no heckling from the 100 students gathered in front of Tillman Hall, the central administration building that bears the name of one of the state’s most virulent 19th century racists, Benjamin Ryan “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman.
Gantt, dressed in a conservative dark suit and overcoat, approached a group of journalists and photographers. “Other than the clicking of camera shutters, the scribbling of pencils and pens, the muffled voices of the journalists speaking into tape recorders, all were quiet and respectful,” Reel wrote.
At Clemson, Gantt met his future wife, Lucinda Brawley, who became the first African-American woman to enroll at Clemson. In May 1965, Gantt received his undergraduate degree with honors. He went on to obtain an advanced degree at MIT and founded, with Jeff Huberman, the Charlotte firm of Gantt Huberman Architects in 1971, six years after he graduated.
Gantt was elected to three terms on the Charlotte City Council and became that city’s first African-American mayor in 1983.
“What I found most hopeful in my years as a student was that a good many of us, 18 to 22 years old, had a positive belief that our state and indeed our nation would undergo some struggles, but better days were ahead for them and for me and for people who looked like me,” he said. “And a lot of us left Clemson with the belief that we could make a difference.”
Tuesday, Gantt urged the faculty to encourage this latest crop of students to form deep connections with Clemson, even as they instill in them a desire to participate in the upcoming presidential election and tackle some of society’s problems.
“I hope you will encourage them to get past the science and the math to pay attention and then get involved in some substantial way,” he said, “and then I would hope you would encourage them to not get too comfortable ... to seek to go out and make a difference. It’s the highest calling.”
Clemson president James F. Barker said the university is proud of its reputation as an institution that integrated with dignity, but he said Clemson must continue to work on boosting its minority enrollment, which hovers at under 13 percent, including about 6.5 percent African-Americans.
He said the transition that Gantt and his wife began in 1963 “is still incomplete” and vowed to increase the number of minority faculty and students “because we get stronger every step we take in that direction.”
This year, Clemson also is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which established land grant institutions such as Clemson and opened higher education to the children of farmers and laborers.