U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Process of Creating Public Memory: The University of South Carolina’s Two Desegregations

As a blogger here at the USIH website, I often deal with questions of intellectual history, memory, and American culture. I’d be remiss, however, if I avoided talking about the fact that I’ve had the privilege over the last year working as part of a larger project commemorating the desegregation of the University of South Carolina in 1963. Up front, I want to say that it’s been an honor being part of a special group of young scholars, all working to present a narrative about USC’s desegregation. In the process, however, I’ve found myself asking questions about how the academy reaches the public and reshapes public memory concerning race, education, and power.

Over the last year, we’ve researched a variety of stories related to the desegregation of USC. One of the team’s primary goals, led by the African American Studies Program, was to move beyond just looking at 1963. For USC, the story really begins in the Reconstruction era, when African American students were first allowed to attend the university for several years in the 1870s. Until 1877 and the rise of the “Redemption” government led by Wade Hampton, it appeared USC was going to provide a new model for education in the South. Unfortunately, after 1877, there would be no Black students at USC again until 1963. Two of the papers given on April 11, 2014, at a symposium designed to be part of the final ceremonies for the Desegregation Commemoration, in fact, dealt with the Reconstruction era: one on the intellectual and political climate of South Carolina during and right after the creation of the landmark 1868 state constitution, and the other on the African American students who attended the University of South Carolina in the 1870s.

As part of our Desegregation ceremonies, we’ve wanted to make sure that the public was aware of this story. I’ve written before about Reconstruction and public memory, but in the state of South Carolina it takes on added meaning. I’m working alongside colleagues in our Department of History here at USC who are doing some outstanding work on Reconstruction, memory, and Columbia, and the Public History program here includes folks doing their best to preserve and publicly push to the citizens of Columbia that often forgotten history.

For example, many of the homes preserved by Historic Columbia, a Public History group here in Columbia, have some connections with Reconstruction. The era after the Civil War is a complex one, and difficult even today for some to talk about. Nonetheless, the Reconstruction period is crucial to understanding how the contours of American political participation have changed over time. It was also, in this vein of expanding people’s understanding of Desegregation at USC, that my research shed light on another under-told story.

When we talk about desegregation in the 20th century, familiar court cases such as Brown v. Board, or the entrance of African American students to universities such as Alabama or Ole Miss come to mind first. However, we also need to think about the many African American students who applied to universities in the south and didn’t get in during the first half of the 20th century. My particular task on this project was to find out some more information about Black applicants to USC before the 1963 desegregation, to understand why they were applying. There’s a myriad of reasons, and I’ll just be brief here: attempts to desegregate USC’s Law School in 1938 by Charles Bailey, for instance, were part of a larger national effort by African Americans to test the recent Maryland State Court ruling in Pearson vs. Murray, which guaranteed the right of African American Donald Murray to attend the previously all-white Maryland Law School. The ruling, applicable only in Maryland, still gave the NAACP and Black students a hopeful template by which to challenge segregation across the South. It must be noted here that Pearson v. Murray worked primarily because the state of Maryland had no “separate but equal” law school for Black applicants.

While Bailey ultimately failed in his quest to enter the USC Law School, it spurred the South Carolina legislature to begin considering building an all-Black Law School at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, S.C. This effort, along with other efforts in the 1940s and 1950s, were stories that our team wanted included in the larger historical memory of the 1963 desegregation. This extension of the USC desegregation story also pushed to the period after 1963, talking about the plight of minority students at the school in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was a fantastic experience to work on the 1963 Desegregation Commemoration. At the same time, since we finished giving our research papers to a public audience on April 11, 2014, I find myself thinking about how I’ve contributed to a “rebuilding” of public memory. The story of desegregation, like that of Reconstruction, is a long and complex one. That means that we must take greater care to the details and parameters of our story, lest we leave out important details or moments. I’ve also been pushed to think harder about how we commemorate moments from the Civil Rights era. Appropriate, considering that last week was also used by prominent leaders at the LBJ Presidential Library to commemorate 50 years of the Civil Rights Act. Memory, race, and civil rights: we can never hope to fully escape these categories in our lifetimes. Nor should we want to, in my opinion. Instead, we should do our best as historians to contribute to the public creation, and recreation, of memory. It will continue, whether we want to participate or not.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Love this piece, and the project sounds very cool. I think that engaging with the “combined and unequal” character of desegregation in higher ed in the South is a uniquely powerful way to convey to undergrads, high school students, the Rotary Club, etc. why local politics matter historically, why the history of the CRM has needed to be elongated, and why the work remains unfinished… Will there be some opportunity to collaborate with other similar projects at other schools, or to create some sort of digital public history archive around the theme of desegregation/higher ed/the South? That would be really valuable, I think.

    • In some sense, we’ve done some of what you mentioned. I didn’t mention this in the above piece, but I also taught a Saturday session on Civil Rights in South Carolina to a group of local high school students last year. They were tasked with making documentary films on that history, and they were judged this year. Some of them were quite good!

      Also, USC has a Moving Images Research Collection, or MIRC, which is a catalog of numerous movie and television clips from South Carolina, and the nation’s, past. Many were used at the campus museum in an exhibit on the CRM as well. As for other schools, something like what you just mentioned would be valuable. Over time, perhaps we’ll see multiple schools getting together for a project like that.

  2. Necessary and inspiring work, intellectually, politically, affectively. It points to how commemorating is also an act of critical reflection that can be incorporated toward the future. Thinking about desegregation in the 50s and 60s (not only in the south, but everywhere in the US), and the heterogeneous, overlapping movements that spurred such changes is essential to reflect on the present. I think in particular of the terrifying rise of race and class-based segregation throughout the country (Charles Blow wrote about this lucidly in his latest op-ed in the New York Times, noting for example how “Students are more racially segregated in schools today than they were in the late 1960s and prior to the enforcement of court-ordered desegregation in school districts across the country.” ).

    • Wholeheartedly agreed. The temporal contours of our narrative, 1865-1980, reflect that. We wanted people who observed our ceremonies to consider these questions in a modern context. And, in a place such as South Carolina, where the Confederate flag continues to fly at the Statehouse, the questions of memory and the modern day are, well, something we can never fully escape.

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