South Carolina State’s law school produced just 51 graduates in its 19 years of existence, but among them were such luminaries as Ernest A. Finney Jr. and Matthew J. Perry Jr.
Years later, Finney said he regretted not fighting harder to prevent the demise of S.C. State’s law school.
Now a group of S.C. State alumni have banded together to advocate for the reinstatement of the law school.
Their leader, Porter Bankhead, grew up in rural York County, the son of a sharecropper. A federal loan paid his way at S.C. State, where he met Perry, who “influenced me a lot and inspired me.”
Bankhead graduated with a mathematics degree and a commission as an Army officer. After two years in the military, he pursued a career in computers.
He became the owner of a high-tech computer business in Washington, D.C., with government and private-sector customers across the nation. He sold that business and became a consultant.
Back when he attended State, it had both a school of law and a school of engineering.
“When I come back and see what’s happened, I’m very distraught to see how South Carolina State hasn’t advanced,” Bankhead said.
“We’re committed to enhancing higher education at S.C. State,” he said, adding that the long-range plan could include a law school, an engineering school and a graduate school in science.
“Our leadership should be more progressive, including the trustees. They should bring something to the table,” he said.
Bankhead said he and some of the committee members have met privately with SCSU’s president, Dr. Andrew Hugine Jr., and some members of the Board of Trustees.
“We’ll be meeting with alumni chapters to discuss it with them and present it to them in more detail,” he added.
Bankhead says Georgia and Virginia have five law schools each. “Why do (critics) think two are enough in South Carolina?” he asked.
Bankhead says another law school is needed in the state to accommodate the large number of law school applicants and to boost minority enrollment in law schools.
Citing American Bar Association statistics, Bankhead says the state’s two law schools accept about 450 students and turn away more than 1,400 applicants a year.
Meanwhile, minority enrollment at the University of South Carolina’s law school has steadily declined and now stands at 5 percent, he said.
The cost of a law school at S.C. State has been estimated at $8 million to build the facility, $500,000 a year for faculty salaries and $125,000 a year for administrative salaries.
“These alumni are aware of funding issues confronting their initiative and are committed to accomplishing funding requirements inherent in law school start-up and operation,” Bankhead said.
That means reaching into their own wallets.
“We have to do our share,” he said. “Alumni support needs to come up, and I think it will come up.”
It also means asking the Legislature for more money.
“South Carolina State does not get its proportionate share,” Bankhead said. “Why should State be a stepchild? That is what 1954 was about. It’s a state-supported institution and it should start there if it’s about funding.”
The alumni group has met with members of the Legislative Black Caucus, Bankhead said.
The Legislature voted in 2004 to create a study committee to consider the feasibility of establishing a law school at SCSU. However, the state Supreme Court threw it out along with other measures, ruling they were illegally “bobtailed” onto the unrelated Life Sciences bill.
Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, filed legislation in 2005 to reinstate the law school study committee and to add the question of a school of engineering as well.
“The board of trustees has not taken any position on a law school,” President Dr. Andrew Hugine Jr. said.
“That is not to say that long-term there might not be an interest in a law school, but that’s not one of the priorities that the board has identified at this juncture,” Hugine said.
SCSU has hired the National Center for Educational Management Systems to perform a comprehensive review of all of the university’s academic programs.
Based on projected future job opportunities and SCSU’s mission, the center will recommend which programs should be added, strengthened or discontinued.
Hugine hopes the assessment will be completed by the first week in June. “Once that effort is completed, we’ll have a better view as to what direction this university should go,” he said.
S.C. State’s School of Law was the product of a lawsuit filed by John Howard Wrighten III of Edisto Beach.
Wrighten graduated from S.C. State whose official name at the time was the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina.
He then applied for admission to the only law school in the state at the University of South Carolina but was denied because of his race.
He had four attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall of New York, who later became an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
District Judge J. Waties Waring ruled on July 12, 1947, that “a Negro resident of South Carolina was entitled to the same opportunity and facilities afforded to white residents for obtaining a legal education by and in the state.”
He ordered the state to admit Wrighten to USC’s law school or build a law school that he could attend.
Rather than integrate USC, the state Legislature authorized, and provided some money for, the establishment of a law school at S.C. State.
Benner Creswill Turner, a graduate of Harvard Law School, was its first dean. Shortly afterward, he became S.C. State’s fourth president.
Classes were held in Wilkinson Hall until the completion of Moss Hall in 1950.
There were eight students the first year, and classes were held in Wilkinson Hall. Wrighten enrolled in 1949. At some point prior to 1954, the Thomas E. Miller Law Society was established for law students at S.C. State.
Graduates 50 men and one woman, all black went on to become attorneys, judges, military law officers and law school teachers and deans.
They have held at least three reunions. The second was in May 1985 and another was in February 1992.
The USC law school began admitting blacks in 1964, and enrollment quickly dwindled at S.C. State’s law school, which closed in June 1966.
The story of S.C. State’s law school and its graduates is told in a nearly 400-page book assembled by attorney Franklin R. DeWitt in 1999 and titled “School of Law: South Carolina State College.”
U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Perry wrote the book’s epilogue. “I believe we are a better nation because of the establishment of the school.”
“There is something special about lawyers from South Carolina State,” Perry wrote. “They are people who put their all and all into their responsibilities to see that things are done property. They are very loyal to their profession. They are thorough in knowing the law and applying it.”