When Henrie D. Monteith, Robert G. Anderson and James Solomon Jr. stepped onto the campus of the University of South Carolina 50 years ago, the three students became part of a national discussion about the education and integration of African-Americans that still resonates today.
Monteith, now Henrie Monteith Treadwell, and Solomon, a longtime public official, will retrace their historic steps Wednesday as the university opens a year-long commemoration of the integration of USC. Anderson died in 2009.
It is a moment that began as a crisis. But by “I-Day,” or Integration Day, Sept. 11, 1963, there was resolve to proceed peacefully and avoid the violence that had rocked other Southern universities.
“No prudent student of public school desegregation over the nation has believed, for long months now, that South Carolina’s segregated system could survive,” The Columbia Record editorialized on Dec. 11, 1962. “All have realized that the Palmetto State was living on borrowed time.”
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The editorial writer went on: “When the days of desegregation arrive, South Carolina has the right to expect the following: From the general citizenry, obedience to the law and respect for those who administer it. From the student bodies of the schools – behavior expected of young gentlemen and ladies, subject to permanent and swift expulsion from the educational communities for violation.”
Looking back, looking forward
For the most part, that decorum was observed on the campus that had welcomed only white students since Reconstruction. There had been a riotous outcry at the State House the previous May, with some USC students vowing to make a last stand for segregation. But Clemson University had established a benchmark when it admitted Harvey Gantt in January 1963, and USC President Thomas R. Jones Jr. was determined that USC’s integration would be as uneventful as a history-making day could be.
Fifty years hence, Treadwell, now 67, said she remains struck with amazement at her place in USC’s history, “particularly when I look back at the pictures and say, ‘What were you thinking?’”
With African-American students now making up about 11 percent of USC’s 23,000-undergraduate student body in Columbia, “I’m kind of overwhelmed in a wonderful way with the progress,” Treadwell said. “I run into students all the time who have graduated from the university and I have even hired some.”
Treadwell, a professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, said there is always more work to be done to enhance opportunities for minorities. She is particularly focused in her scientific research on African-American men, some of whom are incarcerated in America and face little prospect of a successful future.
“It is the civil rights issue of our time,” Treadwell said, of soaring incarceration figures. “We must wake up, each and everyone of us, to address it. If we fail, then some of the gains we have seen will be lost.”
Treadwell, who went on to earn a Ph.D. and became prominent in the field of public health after her graduation from USC, is the author of a new book, “Beyond Stereotypes in Black and White: How Everyday Leaders Can Build Healthier Opportunities for African-American Boys and Men.”
“We are losing our ability to form stable families because of the loss of so many African-American men to jail and prison,” she said, “and those who go have a much lower chance of getting married and they come back damaged.”
Education, particularly higher education, is the path away from that grim scenario, said Valinda Littlefield, director of USC’s African American Studies and co-chair of the 50th anniversary events. But she said there is still “unfinished business” in assuring that minority students succeed in the college environment.
Littlefield believes that USC and other universities ought to approach education holistically and focus on ensuring that elementary and secondary education systems are preparing students, particularly its African-American students, for a college path rather than seeking students out-of-state.
“Colleges needs to step back and see themselves as part of the educational system,” she said. “We are the flagship of South Carolina, why not grow our own? Why not work with the public school system and get them ready for this wonderful institution?”
“I felt it was my right”
In a way, a young Henri Monteith thought USC ought to embrace a native daughter, no matter her color.
She was 17 when she walked out of Osbourne Administration Building with Anderson and Solomon, after a two-year battle to gain admittance to the school. She had completed her freshman year at a Baltimore college while awaiting the federal court decision. While she regretted giving up that campus and her friends there, Treadwell said her mind was on a larger issue.
“I was happy where I was but I did not feel that the University of South Carolina had a right to tell me I could not attend there,” she said. “There was never any idea that I could go somewhere else and do fine. I felt it was my right to go to the University of South Carolina.”
Treadwell came from a storied lineage of protest – her mother fought for the equalization of pay for white and black teachers, her uncle Dr. Henry Monteith was dedicated to ensuring that blacks had access to banking and credit, and her aunt, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, was nationally known for her role in the NAACP and other civil rights organizations. Simkins was a teacher, public health advocate and statewide NAACP organizer during fights to desegregate South Carolina schools, parks and public accommodations.
“The reflection is coming now to me around the importance of what I was able to be a part of,” Treadwell said Wednesday. “I took the walk but many, many people laid down the pathway. I was blessed to be able to do it but it was certainly not something I was able to do alone.”
Solomon, who at 33 was attending graduate school in mathematics, remembered open conversations with his fellow graduate students about their place in history and the difficulties he encountered as the lone black graduate student, even among some faculty who were slow to adjust to the integration.
Anderson, who went on to a longtime career as a social worker in New York, experienced the most open animosity on campus, and left vowing never to return. Finally, on the 25th anniversary of his entrance, he returned and found a welcome environment.
Treadwell, who was housed at Sims dormitory amid sorority girls, said she ignored any racial jabs and found that South Carolina’s natural inclination toward civility worked in her favor.
“I would say that many people were cordial,” she recalled Wednesday. “There were some who would occasionally wanted to study together. I think some were cautious because they were afraid of peer pressure.
“I believe some felt that they were carving a different pathway for the South,” she said. “I did have some individuals who became friends. There are still people who write to me who were there. They wanted to see things changed.”