When presidential candidate Cory Booker looked for a Palmetto State venue to hold a nationally-broadcast town hall this week, he didn’t end up in Columbia or Charleston or Greenville.
He landed in Orangeburg — population 14,000 in the 2010 census — largely because it is home to two influential historically-black colleges and universities, commonly referred to as HBCUs.
Booker spoke to the significance of the two historic African-American institutions — the public South Carolina State University and the private Claflin University — when S.C. State graduate Deon Tedder asked Booker about how the U.S. senator from New Jersey could ensure HBCUs get equitable funding with other public universities if he’s elected.
“The majority of black doctors, black lawyers, black generals are produced by HBCUs,” Booker said Wednesday night from Stevenson Auditorium, pledging his support for the institutions that educated his parents and grandparents to an audience that included S.C. State and Claflin students and faculty and Orangeburg community leaders.
This isn’t the first time the schools with a history dating back to the 19th century have hosted a presidential contender — and it won’t be the last. Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke spoke on the S.C. State campus last Friday. Booker will be back there in May when he gives the commencement address at S.C. State.
They’re following in a tradition established by other presidential contenders from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders, marking the importance of the state’s largest publicly funded HBCU on the road to the White House.
‘It’s not lost on us’
S.C. State’s high profile comes despite an enrollment of under 3,000 students and recent funding troubles that in 2015 led state lawmakers to propose shutting down the school for two years. As the state’s only publicly funded historically black university, the school has a large base of prominent alumni and plays an important role in reaching the state’s African-American voters, school leaders say.
S.C. State President James Clark touts the school’s record of producing leaders in the African-American community, from its education program’s output of public school teachers to its record of graduating the most African-American flag officers of any institution besides West Point.
But he also notes his school might be attractive to 2020 Democratic candidates purely because of its most famous alumnus in the nation’s capital.
“It’s not lost on us that we’re the alma mater of the No. 3 in the Democratic Party, and it’s not on the candidates as well,” Clark said, referring to South Carolina’s senior Democrat in Congress.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, is the majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives. But he got his start in the civil rights movement while a student at S.C. State in the 1960s.
Clyburn said he remembers the close relationship the publicly supported college has with Claflin, a Methodist-affiliated liberal arts college that borders the S.C. State campus.
“When I was a student, we couldn’t have an NAACP chapter on campus,” he told The State. “So we went next door to Claflin, since we weren’t allowed to meet at S.C. State.”
The schools continued to be a hotbed for civil rights activism for years, leading up to the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, when three students were killed and at least 27 others injured when state troopers opened fire during a protest against a segregated bowling alley.
Clyburn notes S.C. State, founded in 1986, grew out of Claflin, when the state started looking for an area to create a land-grant college for the state’s African-American population at a time when other state-supported institutions were still segregated.
“I’ve always called Claflin the mother of S.C. State,” he said.
Clyburn is the most prominent of the school’s alumni base, but the school also has “alumni in high places in every community,” the university’s president said.
“If they were not to at least make a pass by S.C. State, some people would ask why,” Clark said of presidential hopefuls. “In terms of political math, there’s a large African-American voting base, and S.C. State is one of if not the most influential institutions with that base.”
William Hine, a retired S.C. State history professor who wrote a book on the institution’s origins, says the practice of politicians visiting the university is a relatively recent development, following decades of African-Americans being disenfranchised from voting for much of the school’s history.
“We would not get a visit from a Republican, Democrat, Whig or Greenback Party candidate,” Hine joked, “because we didn’t have the opportunity to vote very often.”
But as the state’s African-Americans secured the right to vote and eventually became the majority of the Democratic Party’s primary voters, the campus became a more prominent spot for candidates to campaign, in presidential as well as statewide races. In 2007, S.C. State hosted a debate between the Democratic candidates for president, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Booker’s commencement address on May 10 is just the most recent example of candidates leaving their mark on the school. Clyburn can’t remember another presidential candidate delivering the commencement address, but he helped arrange for Al Gore to give the address when Gore was vice president.
“People will say, ‘It’s Cory Booker, they’re bending over for the Democrats,’ but Republicans have done it as well,” Hine said, noting that the state’s Republican Gov. Henry McMaster was the commencement speaker in 2017.
Former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford also spoke to graduates at the school, and longtime U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond accepted honorary degrees alongside his Democratic colleague U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings. Both U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham have appeared on campus in recent years, too.
“It’s not just a one-sided institution,” Hine said.
Hine isn’t sure just how familiar the candidates are with the history of the school or the surrounding community, although he does remember a conversation with then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden during a campaign visit in 2007.
“He was aware S.C. State is in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference,” along with Biden’s constituents at Delaware State. “So he was well-versed in the Hornets and the Bulldogs,” Hine said.
Having the president’s ear
Being on a future president’s radar can have its advantages. HBCUs have made the most of efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to cultivate ties with historically black institutions. Clark, the S.C. State president, was one of several college presidents who visited the White House early in Trump’s term for a photo in the Oval Office.
“Turns out there was a lot of blow back for going up there for a photo-op,” Clark says. “But that was part of working with administration officials and legislators, and then during one meeting someone suggested it would be possible to do a photo.”
Clark credits the work on that trip — particularly with South Carolina’s Sen. Tim Scott — for an expansion of Pell grant coverage on which 80 percent of S.C. State’s students depend, and for inclusion of agricultural programs at HBCUs in the farm bill.
But Hine, the professor, is unsure what long-term benefit the university will really see from all the pre-election attention.
“The second they secure the nomination, they are unlikely to ever return,” Hine said. “It doesn’t seem to translate into assistance for the institution or the larger black community.”