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A look at the past

A drawing depicts James Webster Smith, one of the first teachers at the College and Institute of Mechanical Arts in Orangeburg (pre-S.C. State University), presenting his defense during a West Point court martial. Smith was the first black to enroll at West Point.

Editor’s note — The following is the first part of a two-part series on the history of South Carolina State University. Part 2 will be published in the Sunday, Aug. 19 edition.)

As a local historian and resident of Orangeburg County for nearly 50 years, I find it imperative to share some history and thoughts on the doings of South Carolina State University. While the river of bad news coming out of the university has been flowing constantly, the academic side seems to be maintaining its focus on educating our youths.

One student said in a recent interview that, “Most of the students are not overly concerned of the investigations and of the dilly-dallyings of the adults who are in charge.” Yet despite it all, the events of today at S.C. State will long be remembered no matter what the outcome may be. Just look at the past.

In 1872, the South Carolina Legislature established the College and Institute of Mechanical Arts at Orangeburg in connection with then-Claflin College — a necessary act because black Carolina did not have a facility for public education. James Webster Smith, the first black to enroll at West Point Military Academy, became one of the school’s first teachers.

From 1872 to March 22, 1878, the school operated from the Claflin campus and was known as the South Carolina Agricultural College and Mechanics’ Institute. From that point until 1896, the school was known as the Orangeburg Branch of the South Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, now known as the University of South Carolina.

Then in 1896, the severance of ties and connections with Claflin College became final, following the separation of church and state doctrine. And South Carolina State University became the first and only public black school of higher education in the state.

On Feb. 26, 1896, Charleston’s News and Courier reported in an article titled “The New Negro College,” “Some of the leading negroes of our city express themselves as being highly delighted with the recent enactment of the Legislature divorcing the State’s aid from Claflin University and establishing a separate institution under the entire control of the State. This will make two great colored institutions located at Orangeburg both separate and distinct.”

Through 1911, the school was guided by its first president, Thomas Miller, and a seven-member board of trustees — all white men, including Gov. John Gary Evans. Miller was a strong leader who became dedicated to the advancement of education for blacks. As a former legislator, senator and congressman, he was well acquainted of the order and process of government. When gubernatorial candidate Cole Blease voiced his opposition to blacks receiving an education, Miller stood up and encouraged the people not to vote for Blease. Blease was elected governor and demanded Miller’s resignation.

On Jan. 29, 1911, Miller stated in his letter of resignation, “I thank you over much, dear sir, for this leniency, the more so because I am guilty of having begged the voters not to vote for you. I counted the cost before I opposed you; hence, I am prepared for the blow of your official act.”

Robert Shaw Wilkinson took over the leadership position at the college on July 1, 1911. He had served the school since its opening day in 1896. Experiencing some trying times under Miller’s administration, Wilkinson was equipped to understand the attitude of the people of the state toward the school. Wilkinson had a large vision, a keen leadership ability, and was conservative and tactful. He understood that the college should grow not only physically, but in quality of instruction and educational standards as well.

On March 15, 1932, The Times and Democrat reported on Wilkinson’s death: “Dr. Robert Shaw Wilkinson for twenty-one years president of State College and who has been connected with the college since its organization in 1896, succumbed Sunday afternoon a victim of pneumonia.”

Upon his death, the board selected Dr. Miller F. Whittaker to serve as acting president. He was officially named the college’s president on May 30, 1932, and took full authority of the school on June 1, 1932.

Whittaker tried to follow the footsteps of Miller and Wilkinson by making contacts that would benefit the college. As the school moved closer to becoming a real college, Whittaker took steps to raise the academic standards by hiring better-qualified faculty. One of the major events of Whittaker’s administration was the opening of the South Carolina State College Law School in 1947.

Essie Mae Washington, daughter of then-Gov. Strom Thurmond, was a student at the school during this time. In her book, “Dear Senator — A Memoir By The Daughter of Strom Thurmond,” she quotes her father on his first visit to see her at State, saying, “I’ve got big plans for this school. I’m going to do all I can for it.” But Whittaker was never able to convince Thurmond and the board of trustees to raise the salary of faculty and staff to where it needed to be.

When Whittaker took ill and was recuperating, Dr. Frank A. DeCosta served as acting president from Oct. 15, 1948 to May 24, 1949. At Whittaker’s death on Nov. 14, 1949, the board named an executive committee to administer the affairs of the college. The committee was comprised of K.W. Green, H.W. Crawford, Frank DeCosta, Frank M. Staley and J.I. Washington. Green served as chairman.

The executive committee served the college until Aug. 1, 1950, when the board named Dr. Benner C. Turner as the school’s new president. Turner had been hired in 1947 to develop the new law school. During his administration, in 1954 the General Assembly changed the name of the school from the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College to South Carolina State College.

In 1956, the civil rights movement made its way on the campus. The T&D reported in the article “Students at State College on Strike” on April 10, 1956: “Negro students at State College here yesterday exchanged textbooks for comic magazines and enjoyed card games on the sunny campus rather than hear lectures in stuffy classrooms.” On April 13, the newspaper reported “Strike Ends at State College; Classes Resume This Morning.” The board of trustees conducted a hearing on the strike and decided to expel student body president Fred Moore of Charleston, effective April 25, 1956.

Under Turner’s leadership, the school increased student enrollment, earned membership into the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools and raised the academic standards of the students. Unfortunately, he did not connect with the students as the civil rights movement barreled across the nation. Demonstrations and boycotts by the students in 1960, 1963 and 1967 became contributory factors in Turner’s demise. For his disconnect, Turner requested and was granted retirement from South Carolina State College on Nov. 1, 1967.

During Turner’s administration in 1961, the first all-black board of visitors was selected to represent black Carolina’s concerns. Five years later, Dr. James A Boykin and I.P. Stanback became the first blacks to hold a seat on South Carolina State’s board of trustees.

When Turner stepped down in November 1967, the board named an interim committee composed of Maceo Nance Jr., Dr. A.F. Belcher and Dr. H.W. Crawford to assist in the transitional period. On June 24, 1967, the board named Dr. Maceo Nance the school’s acting president. As Nance and his administrators developed a plan for the college, the wheels came to an instant stop when the event known as the Orangeburg Massacre occurred on Feb. 8, 1968.

For his efforts in leading the college through such an unfortunate and chaotic situation, the board of trustees rewarded him with the title of president of South Carolina State College. He was inaugurated on June 23, 1968. At that point, South Carolina State changed its focus and direction. Nance retired from South Carolina State in 1986 and died March 23, 2001.

On Feb. 28, 1987, Dr. Albert Smith became the college’s sixth president. Smith’s leadership widened the scope of the school. But the uncertainty of the school’s direction soon drifted into a state of confusion, distrust and corruption.

On Jan. 6, 1992, The T&D reported: “S.C. State President out of Office.” In the article, Columbia attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson said, “The problem at South Carolina State College is not the administration, not the faculty, not the students. The problem ... is around this table. It’s the board.”

Then along came interim President Dr. Carl Carpenter. On Jan. 17, 1992, The T&D reported on Carpenter’s “vows to put S.C. State on track.” “Carpenter took the helm after the trustees, complaining of inaction on urgent issues and overall management problems, ousted Dr. Albert E. Smith, S.C. State’s sixth president,” the article said.

The college chose its first woman president in 1992. A T&D report on Oct. 1, 1992, said, “The historic announcement was made by Chairman Dr. James A. Boykin to faculty, staff and students who were assembled in Martin Luther King Jr. Auditorium. Dr. Barbara Hatton, who has said, ‘she is first and foremost a teacher’ will ‘lead South Carolina State University into the 21st century.’”

Not quite three years later, Hatton was out. “After four-and-a-half hours in executive session, the South Carolina State University Board of Trustees voted 7-2 Tuesday night to terminate the presidency of Dr. Barbara R. Hatton effective immediately,” the June 14, 1995, edition of The T&D said. “‘Dr. Hatton, we will provide you with a letter of termination ... and we thank you,’ said Board Chairman Anthony T. Grant.”

On April 10, 1996, Dr. Leroy Davis was chosen as the eighth president of South Carolina State. After nearly seven years, Davis hastily announced his resignation at a news conference on Jan. 11, 2002, to be effective on June 30, 2002.

“Dr. Barbara Hatton ran into the same kind of thing,” Davis said. “What this board seems to think is that they’re going to run the college.”


Staff Writer/Photographer for The Times and Democrat

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