Furman University was a microcosm of South Carolina and the South as a whole during the tumult of the Civil Rights era—a time when white Southerners attempted to delay and halt desegregation in its tracks.
Dr. Steve O’Neill, a Furman history professor who focuses on the history of the South and is an expert in civil rights history, spoke at the High Noon lecture series Wednesday, November 5, as part of the University’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of desegregation on campus.
Funded by a grant from former Interim President Carl Kohrt, Furman has produced a booklet that outlines and analyzes the history of its desegregation. O’Neill recognized Furman student Brian Neumann for his diligence in digging up the history of the period.
“My work on the commemoration has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my career at Furman,” O’Neill said. But the process engendered criticism that Furman’s reputation demands unpleasant events be downplayed, that those working on unearthing and displaying the history of desegregation are disloyal to Furman, and that the standards of the present day are being applied to judge the past.
“The job of a historian is to explain, not to judge,” he said, and the commemoration of Furman’s desegregation history is an attempt to do just that. An unblinking look at past events is necessary and actually demonstrates loyalty to the institution.
When these events unfolded in the 1960s, “every politician in South Carolina was proud to call himself a segregationist. In 1980 no one would call himself a segregationist,” O’Neill said, applauding the movement in sentiment.
Two overarching themes discovered in Furman’s desegregation history were the deep divisions among the various players and the Furman Board of Trustees’ inability to seize the initative and make a decision although it alone had the power to do so, he said.
Furman officials began quietly gathering information about desegregation in the 1940s, and the debate went full throttle in the 1950s and 1960s. The groups most pivotal in the Furman discussions were the South Carolina Baptist Convention, the Furman Board of Trustees, the administration, the faculty, the students, and the alumni.
During this period, deep divisions existed between the Convention and the University as well as among the various University actors, he said. The Convention itself was deeply divided in the 1960s with the majority favoring segregation but with other strong, articulate voices calling for justice and equality.
Although the Board of Trustees had the final say over Furman’s policies, the Convention often made its views known, and the board quite often responded to that, he said. In the 1950s, the students were divided on the issue, but 93 percent of the student body approved desegregation by 1963. The faculty was generally in favor of desegregation, and by 1963 that opinion was unanimous. The alumni, however, were seriously divided.
Joe Vaughn, a Greenville native, was the first African American to enroll at Furman in January 1965. Three African-American educators—Joseph Adair, William Bowling, and James Daniel Kibler—also enrolled as graduate students.
But much turmoil occurred before that happened, O’Neill said.
The issue exploded on campus in 1955 when The Echo, a student publication, had “the audacity to praise the Brown decision,” O’Neill said. Student editor Joan Lipscomb wrote that decision was a reality and there was no way back. “She demanded that Southern leaders actually lead” the way forward. Another student, Charles King, criticized the Convention’s approach to race relations in “A Perversion of the Baptist Heritage” in that issue. About 1,500 copies were seized and destroyed, but King grabbed the page proofs and took them to the Greenville News, which ran stories on the articles and the censorship for several days.
Dean Frank Bonner defended the confiscation saying it was not censorship because the students had not followed procedure. That was true, O’Neill said, but they had never followed procedure.
The Echo incident was important because censorship is always wrong and because it displayed a pattern that was followed at Furman between 1955 and 1965, he said. There is no record of public discussion of segregation by the board or the administration and no explanation of why the school was continuing in that direction.
A 1957 poll in The Hornet, the student newspaper, found 37 percent of the student body favored desegregation. By 1961 that sentiment had shifted and 512 students favored and 432 opposed desegregation. Also, the faculty, by a vote of 68 to 12, recommended that admission to Furman not consider race. Alumni reacted with concern about whether Furman was too liberal and too communistic.
In the early 1960s, five lawsuits had forced the desegregation of various public entities in Greenville, including the airport and the library. Also, the Gantt v Clemson lawsuit resulted in Harvey Gantt becoming the first African American enrolled in a South Carolina college in January 1963.
“Gantt’s enrollment came after every other state’s universities had desegregated” or had been ordered to do so by the courts, O’Neill said. Gov. Fritz Hollings in his last speech as governor, said, “We have run out of courts.”
The faculty presented a resolution to the trustees, calling for admission on a race-free basis, beginning in 1964. At the next trustee meeting, the board went on record as approving the consideration of race-free admissions. That, however, did not stand as the South Carolina Baptist Convention asked Furman to delay implementation for a year while further studies were done. The study resulted in a recommendation to the Convention that universities be autonomous, but the delegates voted to instruct Furman to maintain segregation.
“The students and faculty were beside themselves,” O’Neill said.
Although the Board planned to comply with the Convention’s request, Bonner argued the practicalities of desegregation—the University was at risk of losing its accreditation, corporate funding, and federal funding as well as many of its faculty. “In the end, a motion was made to defy the Convention,” O’Neill said.
Joe Vaughn, who enrolled in January 1965, was handpicked as a student at Sterling High to break Furman’s color barrier. “He was the right man for the job,” O’Neill said. Vaughn, who taught in Greenville County schools after graduation, died in 1991.
O’Neill said the issue “helps us see then but also today how policies are changed at Furman and how policies are not changed at Furman.” He also said it shows the importance of all constituencies having a voice in issues affecting the school although the board has the final decision-making power.
Furman has three African Americans on its board, an increasing number of black faculty members, and not as many African-American students as we would like, he said.
Learn more about Furman’s Commemmoration of 50 Years Since Desegregation