USC in ’63: Black students step onto campus, into history
08/17/2013 11:00 PM
03/21/2014 11:24 PM
Inside the pages of the 1963 and 1964 University of South Carolina Garnet & Black yearbooks, there was no hint that this new generation of students was about to witness the upending of a familiar, segregated way of life.
The collegiate traditions seemed fixed and forever. Amid the academic, sports and class photographs, the contest for May Queen, “with its bustle of crinolines and evening gowns,” was prominent. Students filled chairs for Religious Emphasis week.
The young men of Kappa Alpha capped their year with the annual Old South Ball with its colorful “Secession-from-the Union” ceremony. And Derby Day was marked by silly antics and the Miss Venus contest, in which female students wearing short shorts and brown paper bags over their faces vied for the title.
As it was for decades, everyone pictured in the yearbooks was fresh-faced, modestly dressed – and white.
There was no mention of the three black students – Henrie D. Monteith of Columbia, Robert G. Anderson of Greenville and James L. Solomon of Sumter – who had enrolled on Sept. 11, 1963, or of the sit-ins and civil rights demonstrations that had taken place since 1961 just blocks from the leafy campus in downtown Columbia.
But inside USC’s Osborne administration building, President Thomas F. Jones Jr. and others in his administration recognized that history sometimes walks in on quiet, determined feet.
Sensitive to the crisis
Jones and his top aides, including Dean of Students Charles H. Witten, had spent months preparing for the possibility of integration and the launch on Sept. 11, of “I-Day,” or Integration Day, when USC would open its doors to African-Americans for the first time since Reconstruction.
“We are all sensitive to the crisis which faces us and to the way in which we must face it,” Jones wrote in late 1962 to Alma Campbell, a Gaffney resident who urged peaceful integration in the wake of convulsive racial violence at the University of Mississippi. “I assure you that we at the University will do everything in our power to face the events of the future with suitable dignity.”
As during the fight over public school desegregation, the state had balked at every stage of Monteith’s petition to enter USC.
USC had already fired a dean and professor in the 1950s for liberal views on integration; reprimanded two students, Hayes Mizell and Seldon Smith, who had participated in lunch counter demonstrations; and dismissed a third who was arrested at a 1961 State House march.
The university rejected Monteith’s initial application in 1962, despite her academic credentials, with the note that “your application has been received but cannot be favorably considered.” She spent her freshman year at Notre Dame College in Maryland and doggedly reapplied to USC.
In July 1963, U.S. District Judge J. Robert Martin ruled that USC must admit Monteith. By that point, USC officials had already determined to proceed with dignity, hoping to emulate the success of Clemson University. Clemson had admitted its first black student, Harvey Gantt, six months earlier without incident. Lucinda Brawley, Clemson’s first female black student, was also enrolling in the fall of 1963, just days before USC.
“You know, at that time, the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) was pretty active down here in Olympia, just a few miles from the campus, and we were awfully worried about outsiders coming in and starting real disturbances,” Witten recalled in a 1987 oral history for the university.
As it turned out, Sept. 11, 1963 was anticlimactic as the last Southern collegiate barrier fell. The three students were registered within minutes of their early arrival on campus, to the consternation of 40 or so reporters and photographers who were waiting in a nearby building and missed the historic moment.
“The nearest thing to an ‘incident’ at the enrollment of the three was the failure of university officials to have members of the press at the administration building at the time the students arrived,” the Columbia Record noted in its Sept. 12, 1963, edition.
Later, a graduate student told a reporter about 50 students had watched the students walk onto campus in “uneasy silence.”
But administration officials, who had traveled to Georgia Institute of Technology and Clemson to plot out a plan for peaceful integration, were ready to counter the presence of what public relations spokesman David Abeel had called “outspoken anti-integration elements in the student body.”
“There was at least one session prior to our entering the university where we all came together here in Columbia,” said Solomon, who was entering the university as a graduate mathematics student.
“Harvey and Lucinda, Henrie, Robert and I, together with white students from both Clemson and USC – we spent a day together talking about what it was going to be like,” he recalled Wednesday. “And those kids who were there assured us they would be our friends on campus and if things really got rough, they would be friends we could talk with.”
Joan Wolcott, editor of the Gamecock student newspaper, had made it clear USC collegians would not tolerate a repeat of the situation at Mississippi, when riots broke out as James Meredith attempted to enter the school.
“We want no hotheads stirring up trouble at our state university,” she wrote. “With intelligence, faith and regard for our fellow students, the integration problem can be settled in the spirit of which our Carolina community was founded.”
Monteith was a self-possessed 19-year-old, impatient with the segregation system but determined to withstand any abuse that came her way.
On Sept. 12, she attended her first class, a 9 a.m. physics class, dressed, as a newspaper reported, “in typical collegiate style – plaid skirt, white blouse and white tennis shoes.” She ate with fellow students in the Russell House that evening.
Her aunt Martha Monteith said a strong family background prepared Henrie to take the long view.
“She was always an outgoing person and she was very much aware of what was going on because of her family,” which included prominent civil rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins, Martha Monteith said Friday. “I wouldn’t say fearless but we just didn’t capitulate to any kind of thinking.”
In late August of that year, an intruder ignited two sticks of dynamite at the residence of Martha and her physician husband, Dr. Henry Monteith, an action that seemed to strengthen Henrie Monteith’s resolve. “She said she was not going to be afraid,” Martha Monteith recalled.
Monteith was housed in a single room among sorority girls in Sims College dormitory, and recalled in subsequent years an educational experience that was fulfilling, despite its social drawbacks and isolation. She made friends, although she never considered pledging the all-white sorority system. All three African-American students were asked not to attend USC football games, according to a university history written by Henry H. Lesesne.
Monteith, now Henrie Monteith Treadwell, went on to earn a Ph.D. and became prominent in the field of public health. She is a professor in the department of community health and preventive medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta and author of a new book, “Beyond Stereotypes in Black and White: How Everyday Leaders Can Build Healthier Opportunities for African American Boys and Men.” She and Solomon plan to return in September for the 50th anniversary commemoration, the university said.
Solomon, a 33-year-old Air Force veteran who was married with a family in Sumter, entered USC without need of a court order because of Monteith’s successful lawsuit. He found that his fellow graduate students were thoughtful and willing to discuss the changes taking place.
“We knew we were entering a new era there at USC, so it wasn’t routine. We didn’t go out to get a cup of coffee or anything together,” he said last week. “Some of the professors were not as comfortable with my being there as others and, you know, we talked about that.”
Anderson, who died in 2009, suffered the most abuse from his fellow undergraduates. Some white students would bounce basketballs outside his dorm room and pound on his door at all hours. Sometimes, they would shout obscenities as he walked to class or to meals.
“I remember on a couple of occasions he would ask me to walk with him to the Russell House for lunch so I could get a taste of what he was going through,” Solomon said last week. “On almost every occasion, we would pass half-opened windows and someone would stand where they could not be seen and shout obscenities. There was never a confrontation, but just stuff. It just worked on him.”
Anderson, who went on to a career in social work in New York, vowed never to return to the campus because of the bad memories. But on the 25th anniversary of USC’s integration, he did return and found an altered landscape.
“He could recognize the change and how he was being treated and he appreciated it,” Solomon said.
In its own way, the 1964 Garnet & Black acknowledged that change was in the air.
Editors opened the ’64 volume with a quote from North Carolina writer Thomas Wolfe: “But we are the sum of all the moments of our lives – all that is ours is in them: We cannot escape or conceal it.”
The following fall, 11 more African-American students stepped onto campus, joining the inaugural three.
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