Don Frierson remembers ranting and raving to his college mentor, Dean Willie Lloyd Harriford Jr., for hours.
A black man will never be president, Frierson recalls saying to “Dean Harriford” when Frierson was a University of South Carolina Student in the 70s. Racism was just too strong.
Harriford, of course, disagreed, but he listened anyway.
“He just said you can do anything you want to do if you put the time in,” said Frierson, who hosts The Urban Scene on WGCV-AM in Columbia. After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Harriford was one of the first people Frierson saw.
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“He didn’t say ‘I told you so.’ He said ‘I understand why you thought that way,’” Frierson said.
That’s mostly how Harriford, who died Wednesday at the age of 83, is remembered: a wise and patient man passionate about making the lives better for African-Americans.
“There were very few black people in the faculty at that time, so a lot of the black students gravitated toward him,” Frierson said. “We always sought his advice. He was always there for us. He’s one of the main reasons I graduated.
“He was one of a kind. I could tell you all day what he meant to students at USC,” Frierson said.
By the way Harriford talked, one would never guess he was one of the key civil rights figures in Columbia and at the University of South Carolina. In 1971, he helped found the African American Studies program, and he served as the school’s first black administrator. The Army veteran established a chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity, on USC’s campus and spent decades documenting and preserving the Civil Rights movement.
“Our entire USC family mourns the loss of one of our own. Dr. Willie Harriford was a beacon of goodness, intellect and strength who made an incredible difference in the lives of countless USC students and citizens of our nation,” USC President Harris Pastides said in a statement.
After leaving USC, Harriford served as an adjunct professor at Benedict College and a consultant for the S.C. Department of Education.
“He traveled around the country interviewing civil rights veterans and archiving that,” said Bobby Donaldson, an associate professor of history at USC, brother of Alpha Phi Alpha and a colleague of Harriford. “We all benefit from it. All these things we use in research in teaching. That will definitely be his legacy in my mind.”
Harriford’s influence stretched beyond the Midlands. The Kansas native was the first black archivist to work for a former president, Harry Truman. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he helped found the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, which is now called the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia, according to a 2017 S.C. House of Representatives resolution commending his public service.
“He has all these credentials, yet he was one of the most laid back and hilarious people in the city,” Donaldson said. “He was too humble to talk about his achievements.”