When James Hollins took his first steps onto the University of South Carolina Beaufort campus 50 years ago, he didn’t think he was doing much more than walking to his first class.
What he didn’t realize on Sept. 12, 1963, was that he was walking into history as the first black student to attend the college, paving the way for others.
On Friday at the Historic Beaufort Campus, Hollins — who died in January at age 85 — was honored in a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of desegregation at the college. His daughter, Jackie Hollins Lee, spoke on his behalf and recounted Hollins’ role in advancing civil rights.
“To be able to be here and experience what Dad did, it’s very exciting,” Lee said. “I don’t think we really thought about how it not only was changing his life but was changing the lives of so many others, as well.”
Hollins was stationed at Parris Island in 1963 when the University of South Carolina put out a call to Marines to enroll. He decided to answer.
But the college didn’t realize Hollins was black, Lee said.
Hollins, who also was in the first group of African Americans to desegregate the Marine Corps, Lee said, passed the entrance exam and was ready to start classes.
But it wasn’t that simple. And neither were the times.
Several months before, the National Guard was sent to the University of Alabama to enforce the right of black students to enroll.
In August, Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech.
And three black students had to sue in federal court to gain admission to the University of South Carolina’s main campus in Columbia.
“Even after fighting for my country in two wars, the fight for my education was the fight of my life,” Hollins told USCB officials last year.
He enrolled in two undergraduate classes, according to current vice chancellor for advancement Lynn McGee. To show support, some of his fellow Marines accompanied Hollins on his first day of classes.
Hollins considered it “just another day in the life of a Marine,” Lee said.
“I know my grandparents were very afraid, and I remember the hushed conversations between my mother and father in the other room,” said Lee, who was 9 when her father enrolled. “But that fear didn’t resonate with him.”
Hollins’ sister, Nancy Hampton, said her brother was quiet and strong.
“He wasn’t going to back down,” Hampton said. “It takes a lot of courage to be that first one, but it let so many others walk in after him. He just wanted his education.”
Once enrolled, Hollins encountered little hostility from students, staff or the community, Lee said. In fact, he found that many embraced him, she said.
“At that time in South Carolina, you didn’t know what would happen,” McGee said. “But the fact that it was a peaceful experience, and he was accepted by the Beaufort community, that almost makes it more notable now.”
Hollins attended USCB for one semester before being transferred to a Marine Corps base in Albany, Ga. He later completed a master’s degrees in accounting and business administration. After his military service, Hollins started an accounting firm in Joliet, Ill., which he ran for 30 years.
At Friday’s celebration, Lee said while her father appreciated the recognition, he would say he was just doing what he had to for his education.
“If my father were here today,” Lee said, “I know exactly what he would say: ‘What is all the fuss about? I just answered a call.’ ”