"Irrespective of Race or Color": Examining Desegregation at the Reconstructed University of South Carolina, 1868-1877

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Book Section

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Publication Title

Invisible No More: The African American Experience at the University of South Carolina


University of South Carolina Press

Publisher Location

Columbia, SC

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Examining Desegregation at the Reconstructed University of South Carolina, 1868–1877 Tyler D. Parry In December 1911, a group of Black men convened in Columbia, South Carolina to celebrate a reunion that linked each of them to the city and the state’s flagship institution of higher education, the University of South Carolina (USC). They comprised lawyers, diplomats, academics, a former Congressman, and church leaders, reflecting a standard of Black achievement that both frightened white South Carolinians and inspired younger African Americans. A reporter from the New York Age noted that the group’s main commonalities lied within two related experiences: all of them attended USC during Reconstruction in the mid-1870s, and all of them were denied their degrees when the university was closed to Black students in 1877.1 Their gathering was motivated by many factors. First, they wished to be seen and recognized for their accomplishments, as their mere presence challenged the erasures of Black achievement caused by the toppling of Reconstruction and the subsequent historical revisionism that came at the inception of Jim Crow governance. Second, their public presence encouraged community discussions about the state of Black America and ways of uplifting the race. Their gathering directly confronted the lies of segregationists who claimed Black people were incapable of intellectual excellence when placed in integrated settings. Indeed , the distinguished alumni of the “mixed school,” as it was sometimes called by opponents, provided a reminder that integrated education had succeeded once in the state, and it could succeed again if allowed.2 “Irrespective of Race or Color” 31 The reporter deemed these men the “Class of 1879,” stating that this was the year most of them were set to earn their degrees.3 Each of them was forced to complete their education elsewhere after their expulsion, which added greater weight to the claim that they were deserving of the degrees originally sought. Their inability to finish their education in Columbia was obvious. It was due to “their race” and a lack of “Christian spirit” that forced their removal from campus .4 By reconvening in Columbia many decades later, they directly confronted the craven nature of the Jim Crow government and challenged white southerners to explain how such accomplished men should be denied the degrees they would have rightfully earned if they were allowed to complete their studies. Their accomplishments preceded their gathering, and their presence symbolized, at the very least, the intellectual and cultural losses wrought by the dismantling of South Carolina’s Reconstruction government. But the reporter also noticed something deeply hypocritical about withholding degrees from men who held no control over their circumstances, especially those legislative measures that were decided outside the university’s walls. They noted that some of the “white students” who attended the university prior to the Civil War were allotted honorary degrees, despite the fact that they enlisted in the Confederate Army to fight against the Union in order to “perpetuate the institution of human slavery.” This reality, they asserted, “has no proper place in the conduct of a people who declare they believe in the Christian religion and philosophy.”5 Using the self-professed Christian principles espoused by Proslavery apologists and segregationists, the journalist highlighted a poignant example of hypocrisy that gripped this section of the Jim Crow South, directly calling out the inconsistencies brought by the illogical nature of racism. The presence of the “Class of 1879” in South Carolina’s capital city provides one example of Reconstruction’s enduring legacy in a state that historians suggest changed the most during that era, as Black and white Republicans formed most of the legislators and politicians in the state’s government by 1868.6 Hoping to form a more equitable society, they extended social services without respect to race or class. Instituting a governmentally funded system of public schooling, their efforts completely changed educational access in the postbellum South, specifically remolding the university’s structure from one that only served the sons of wealthy slaveholders to opening its doors to people of African descent, both freeborn and the formerly enslaved, and whites from all socioeconomic categories. Though the university’s integration was short-lived through the craven betrayals of politicians at the federal level, it’s unique standing in the history of Reconstruction demands further attention. Who attended the university? Was there a campus life? Were Invisible No More 32 only men present upon the campus? What were the circumstances under which...

Controlled Subject

Race relations; University of South Carolina


Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies

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