The Day the Walls Came Down

Fifty Years Ago, Three Black Students Entered USC
By Rodney Welch
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
USC Desegregation
L-R: Robert Anderson, Henrie Monteith and James Solomon led the desegregation of the University of South Carolina campus on Sept. 11, 1963. Photo courtesy South Caroliniana Library

Commemorating Desegregation at USC: Schedule of Events

On August 27, 1963, an unknown assailant made a last desperate attempt to scare a young black woman from enrolling at the University of South Carolina.

Somewhere around 11:30 p.m., there was a sudden explosion in the yard of Dr. Henry and Martha Monteith’s Columbia home. The doctor had already gone to bed; Mrs. Monteith was still up, and thought maybe the blast was a sonic boom from Fort Jackson. Whatever it was, it had shattered the glass portion of a door in the family home.

It was also loud enough to wake her niece, 17-year-old Henrie, who lived with her family a quarter-mile down the road.

“It’s just something we heard in the middle of the night,” Henrie Monteith Treadwell says today, “and all of a sudden we got up and said, ‘What was that?’”

Just a month before, Henrie Monteith (now Monteith Treadwell) had successfully won a court battle to enroll at the university, and would be starting in two weeks. Whoever tossed the dynamite had likely aimed at the wrong house, but the message was clear — and, sadly, unsurprising.

There had already been letters in the newspaper and protests, as well as calls.

“I would come home about three in the afternoon,” 92-year-old Martha Monteith remembers. “The minute I would come in, my telephone would ring, and it was all kinds of words. Why did we want that ‘N’ to go to the university. That kind of talk.”

The Monteith family had long been involved in civil rights and knew the costs. Henrie’s grandmother had started a school for African-American children. Her mother had successfully sued a school district to equalize pay for black and white teachers. People had fired shots into the home of her aunt, Modjeska Simkins, a lifelong activist.

The family wasn’t about to let a bomb stop Henrie from breaking the color barrier at the university, but they were concerned for her safety.

“She was to commute,” her aunt recalls. “But after that, everything changed. She had to live on campus, for safety reasons. Think about all that. She had to be protected.”

Awaiting the Day of Reckoning

The process of Henrie Monteith’s enrollment had been set in motion months before, during a family discussion. She was already attending the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, an integrated but predominantly white Catholic institution in Baltimore.

Someone asked: What would happen if you applied to the University of South Carolina?

It was a question whose time had come. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling against segregation, one Southern university after another had pitched a losing and usually violent battle with the federal government. There had been riots at the University of Georgia in 1961 and at the University of Mississippi in 1962, the latter leaving 300 people injured and two dead. In June of 1963, George Wallace made a flamboyant stand at the door of the University of Alabama to keep the school segregated. USC’s day of reckoning could not be far away.

The die was cast after a young African-American named Harvey Gantt was denied admission to Clemson University. With the help of civil rights attorney (and later federal judge) Matthew Perry, Gantt successfully sued the school. Gantt was admitted to Clemson in January 1963, under orders from the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

But Clemson was one thing — Upstate, out of the way, not quite the center of attention — and USC was another. Only a few years before, in 1955, the university had fired one of its own, Chester Travelstead, Dean of the School of Education, for publicly supporting integration. USC was the state’s flagship university — where black people literally could not set foot, located in the heart of a city where local businesses were still segregated. Could USC hold out? The Monteith family was intent on finding out.

Inspired by Rejection

They weren’t the only ones interested.

“The NAACP and local leaders were looking for individuals who [had] a good chance at being admitted,” says Bobby Donaldson, associate professor of history and African-American Studies at USC. “They wanted a student who had the academic credentials, who had family support, who would be willing to become this path-breaking figure. So she fit in all those categories.”

Henrie Monteith applied. The university’s response was swift, short, and didn’t say much more than no.

“That’s all it said. It did not give a reason,” she says. “But we knew the reason, because we knew I was qualified.”

The rejection inspired her.

“Once I was declined,” she says, “that kind of turned on a new fervor in me around that particular institution.”

The Monteith family called Matthew Perry, who already knew the legal ropes from the Gantt case.

Another African-American student, Robert Anderson, was also eager to test the university. A student at Clark College in Atlanta, he hired Greenville attorney Donald J. Sampson, who filed a petition to intervene in the Monteith suit against the university.

There was also a third African-American, Jim Solomon, an Air Force veteran and Sumter math teacher, who wanted to pursue the university’s graduate program in mathematics.

Monteith’s and Solomon’s experiences would turn out to be relatively benign in the context of the times; Anderson’s would not.

L-R: James Solomon, Robert Anderson and Henrie Monteith. Photos courtesy South Caroliniana Library

On June 21, Monteith’s case was filed in U.S. District Court. Just over two weeks later, the university was ordered to admit her for the fall semester. The university also accepted the application of Anderson.

Solomon — who already had an undergraduate degree from Morris College in Sumter, where he was then teaching, and a master’s degree from Atlanta University — submitted an application for the USC doctoral program, and was told he had to take the Graduate Record Exam first.

He was fearful, sure that whatever his achievements, the application would indicate his race.

“They knew Atlanta University was black and they knew that Morris was black, so I’m sure they knew that I was black.”

So did the media. They even saved him a parking space when he showed up for the exam.

“They were asking me questions and all of that and I didn’t answer any questions, but the only thing that was going through my head was, ‘Lord, I sure hope I do well on this exam, because if I don’t the whole world is going to know it.’ The Lord blessed me, I did well enough to be admitted, and so I was admitted.”

USC’s Stage-Managed Integration

Although the university appealed the Monteith decision, it didn’t put up much of a fight. University officials had seen the walls come tumbling down elsewhere — along with nightly news footage of violent rednecks, National Guard troops and ambulances. The school knew its options: We can make this ugly, or we can make it a complete non-event.

Clemson had set the tone. Admitting Gantt hadn’t happened easily, but it had happened without incident. The late Matthew Perry, in an interview for USC’s Oral History Project, said both sides had played it as low-key as possible.

“They did so out of an abundance of caution, recognizing, I am sure, that there were elements right here in South Carolina fully capable of engaging in the kinds of conduct that we had seen down in Oxford, Mississippi. They set out to try and avoid any replication of that incident.”

The same proved true for USC, where the three black applicants — Henrie Monteith, Robert Anderson and latecomer Jim Solomon — all enrolled on Sept. 11, 1963.

“I came down to Matthew Perry’s office,” Solomon remembers, “and Robert was there and Henrie was there and Matthew drove us to the Osborne Building to register. We were the only students registered that day that I know of. Nobody else was registered with us, anyway.”

“The university went for a highly orchestrated plan on that day,” Donaldson said. “They wanted to minimize as much public attention as they could. They wanted to ward off as much of an outside audience as they could, and so they really scripted the day in great detail. Everyone who [was] involved on that day confirms that this was a highly organized, highly planned moment — precisely to avoid any controversy that emerged in these other states.”

South Carolina historian Walter Edgar says business leaders and educators made sure the day went off without a hitch.

“There used to be jokes that SLED had an agent who was a member of every Klan klavern in the state of South Carolina,” he said. “They knew exactly what they were going to do, so they could block it.”

Charles Witten, a 95-year-old Navy veteran who had been hired as Dean of Students in July of 1963, remembers exactly how it unfolded.

“We planned it for six months so that we wouldn’t get any interference from outside,” he says, “and actually we had no dealings with the applicants. It was all pretty set. When the word came, we were ready to do it.”

Harold Brunton, who was USC’s vice-president of business, was in charge of campus police.

“The amazing thing,” he recalls, is that “there were SLED officers scattered throughout the campus, but the students just ignored them and went about their normal business. I don’t think, looking back, that they were needed, but it was to be on the safe side.”

From one account to the next, the word that keeps coming up to describe the major event in USC history date is “uneventful.” It’s a story that mirrors that of the City of Columbia, where Mayor Lester Bates stage-managed the peaceful integration of downtown businesses in August 1963 after several years of protest and court rulings leading to a sense of inevitability.

Photo courtesy South Caroliniana Library

“The desegregation of the University of South Carolina wasn’t even a blip on the national news,” historian Edgar says. People who were there “said the only crowd, or mob, were the reporters. They thought something was going to happen. Looking for something to happen, and it didn’t.”

James L. Durig, now dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was just starting his career at USC.

“There weren’t any problems whatsoever,” he says.

His faculty peers were all basically in favor of the change. “Everybody that I knew there [was] supportive of it and stated that the time had come,” he says. “We needed to have a change.”

The day was no big deal for anyone, it seems —except for the three students at the center of attention.

Fine — On the Surface

When Isabelle Secrest Mims, a white student who would become a friend to Henrie Monteith, thinks of South Carolina in 1963, race doesn’t even come to mind. The year’s defining event would be the Kennedy assassination.

“It just was not an issue,” she says. “We were all students there. On campus, there were Chinese, there were Eastern students, there were Indian students, it was really no issue to us because we were all there interested in the ordinary things of campus life. We just all had a nice experience.”

Maybe the white kids did. For three new black students, it varied.

By her own account and that of others, Monteith Treadwell — now a professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine at Morehouse University in Atlanta — was an exceptionally dedicated student who got along well with her friends and professors. White students didn’t mind walking with her to class. No one hurled epithets. Some would even go with her downtown, where the Main Street business district had been integrated just a few months before Monteith started at USC.

“We would go shopping together,” she says, “walking down Main Street and do things — sometimes to the fear of my family for my safety, but I felt safe. So I was not as alone as one might think because there were some people who simply didn’t buy into the rhetoric.”

“She was an extremely good student,” Durig recalls. “Of course, good students are usually accepted quite well and she was, in that case. I never saw any difficulty.”

Not every student knew she was black.

“I’m fairly light-skinned,” she says, “and I think sometimes people didn’t even realize I was sitting there and they’d say, ‘Did you know there was a black person in our class?’”

Mims says Monteith’s race was a non-issue in the dorm.

“As far as the girls on our end of Sims Hall, she was just one of us and we just enjoyed one another’s company. The issue with integration or segregation was not an issue.”

Except that it sort of was.

In her first year in the dorm, a student left food outside Henrie’s door, meant to suggest she was a poor starveling who took scraps. She could hear the culprits snickering behind their door as she kicked the food down the hallway.

“Those things don’t bother me,” she says. “Those were the little games that small minds play.”

Also, while students didn’t mind associating with Henrie Monteith in the classroom, they didn’t eat with her at the cafeteria.

“Did people have the courage to walk over and say, ‘Can I join you?’ I don’t think, at that time, many had that courage, so I will not assign it as actively trying to isolate me,” she recalls. “I think people just simply went along with whatever was going on, and very few had the courage to do something different. Quite frankly, I understood that, so I didn’t spend any time thinking about it.”

Things were better in the classroom, where she tended to thrive, but every now and then came a reminder that she was in foreign territory. She recalls a science professor making dismissive referrals to people in the University Terrace housing project [online copy corrected], “talking about all the parasites and things that the people who were living there had.”

Change Takes Time

Looking back, Monteith Treadwell tends to be philosophical. Change takes time.

“I did not have experience in working, living, being around a large number of whites,” she says. “Neither had they had the opportunity to be around African-Americans. So it was new for all of us, and some did better than others.”

Fortitude was the key. See but don’t see, as she puts it — know what’s going on, but don’t get discouraged.

Solomon, at 33 the oldest of the students, had a family to support. He was attending USC as well as teaching at Morris College, and dividing his time between Columbia and Sumter.

“When you have a rigorous academic program,” he says, “you don’t have time to be messing with nobody. You don’t have time to give them a hard time, because all of you are in the same boat, you’re taking classes together, you all are studying together, you’re all trying to learn from one another and so these people weren’t kids, they were mature.”

Although he wasn’t in the daily fray of student life, he would occasionally get reminders that not everyone was on board with integration.

“There were a couple of professors who — let’s see, how can I say it? — would make it obvious that they either thought I was a joke or that I wasn’t too well-appreciated.”

That was not the case with Wyman L. Williams, head of the USC Department of Mathematics. He helped Solomon secure a National Science Fellowship, which allowed him to quit teaching at Morris and focus solely on his graduate work at USC.

Feeling the Brunt

For Robert Anderson, who died in 2009, it was a different story.

Life at USC was hell. Students would yell slurs from the safety of their rooms as he walked across campus. They would avoid him at the cafeteria.

At all hours of the night, they would torment him by bouncing basketballs against his door or on the floor above his room to keep him from studying or sleeping.

He was a “smart, articulate, no-bulls#!t sort of guy,” according to retired USC professor Thorne Compton, who was then a freshman. Compton said Anderson knew what he was getting into at USC, and even did some advance role-playing with white students before arriving.

But life as a trailblazer for social change can take its toll.

“It’s very draining, in a way,” says Compton, who lived in the same dorm and served with Anderson on the debate team. “Robert was a mature guy, very smart, and very committed to what he was doing, but the level of always knowing that people are watching you, that people are talking about you and a lot of people are talking about you in a way that’s very negative — it’s tough. It makes you always be on your guard.”

When Solomon joined Anderson for lunch, Solomon saw firsthand what Anderson was up against on campus.

“Robert and I would be walking across the campus, going to the Russell House and people would stand behind the shades and half-open windows,” Solomon says. “You couldn’t see them, but they would yell stuff like, ‘Hey, was your daddy a monkey?’ Or they would call us the N-word. Or they would ask us if we had tails, you know, stuff like that, and Robert would say, ‘See? I have to go through this every day.’”

Solomon tried to encourage him.

“I’d say, ‘Robert, you know, these people are cowards, because if they were not cowards, they would say stuff like that to us face to face.’”

The same went for people who banged on his door at 2 a.m.

“I said, ‘Now, if they were men, they’d face you. I learned that from the Air Force. They would face you, you know. And they would say these things to your face, so the fact that they don’t do that means that they are cowards, so don’t let it worry you.’”

Compton says Anderson coped as best as he could, usually with his own dark humor. When the police responded to a call that a troubled young man in the dorm had committed suicide, Anderson said that people were probably hoping it was him.

Anderson wasn’t detached from campus society like Solomon, and didn’t have Monteith’s level of family support. He also, as Donaldson sees it, lacked her absolute focus.

“She was rock-solid determined that under no circumstances would she become a victim on this campus,” he says. “She was resolute in that, so I think even if there were signs and sounds of people who disagreed with her presence, she had this capacity to really kind of cut right through it. And Bob Anderson did not. I think he internalized a great deal of the stress and anxiety he felt on the campus, and said as much.”

Anderson held on. He graduated from USC, served in Vietnam and worked in New York City as a social worker.

”He helped Cuban refugees, worked with mothers and children in the Bureau of Child Welfare, and ran an alcohol counseling program,” reads Anderson’s obituary on the USC website. He also earned a professional social work degree from Hunter College and spent a number of years helping homeless veterans.

He also left something of an emotional legacy with his debate team partners.

“He was clearly a person then who had a very strong commitment to human rights and to civil rights,” Compton says. “He made that clear. He not only talked about it, he lived it. I admired him very much.”

Anderson was the first black friend of John Wertz, now a retired Lutheran pastor. Anderson told Wertz the story of how, as a child, he had tried to use a whites-only library to get a book for a school assignment. The librarian called the police, who called his parents.

“I remembered how unfair that seemed to me,” Wertz says. “It really did affect the way I viewed black-white relationships.”

“My one regret of my time at the university,” says Monteith Treadwell, “was that I could not figure out a way to help Bob Anderson achieve more success there. I think he went through more things than I did, but I just did not know the extent to which he was having difficulty — or, if I did, I didn’t know what to do about it.”

Maybe, she suggests, it was about gender.

“I happen to know a number of African-American men who have finished university, so it’s not that there’s a trail of tears there. There may not be at all. But I do wonder that sometimes the retribution against the males seems to be much higher than it is against the women.”

For Solomon, who was later named division director at the Commission on Higher Education and held other executive positions in state government, the main takeaway from his time at the university was a better appreciation of how professionals help each other. The personal assistance and interest of Wyman Williams left a lasting mark.

For Henrie Monteith Treadwell, the lesson was almost the opposite: being at the university made her independent.

“The university, and that experience, made me a stronger person than I might have been had I not had to walk some of those paths by myself.” 

Commemorating Desegregation at USC: Schedule of Events

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