John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Way Down South In Dixie

John N. Gardner

John teaching at USC_res-up
The tragic terrorist attack and related killings; the extraordinary forgiveness offered by the families of the victims; the visit of President Obama; the calls by the Governor of South Carolina and my University President, Harris Pastides, to take the flag down; and now as I write the formal debate in the South Carolina Legislature to take the flag down—all have unleashed a torrent of memories for me about my own experiences with racism and bigotry under the official auspices of the Confederate flag.

I lived in South Carolina for nearly 33 years, from 1967-1999, coming there involuntarily, staying by choice, and leaving also by choice—although not leaving completely because of my two sons and friends who live in SC and my continuing appointment with the University of South Carolina. I am hardly a detached observer of the recent events, which have moved me profoundly.

My wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I had just been this June in Charleston, the Holy City, so named because of all its historic churches, including the one turned into a charnel house, for nine days during the annual, internationally acclaimed Spoleto Arts Festival. We had walked by the site of the massacre several times just thirteen days before the tragedy.

Looking way back to my relative youth, I did not want to come to South Carolina, but that is where the US Air Force sent me. I volunteered for Vietnam to get an alternative duty station but Shaw AFB is where Uncle Sam sent me. I was a military trained psychiatric social worker stationed at an Air Force hospital in Sumter, S.C. This was two and a half years after Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act. The base was fully integrated in housing, schools, everything. But as soon as one left either the front or back gates of the base, you entered another country that was totally segregated by race. But at least the Air Force showed us how we all could and would live and serve together.

My first day on the base I was introduced to an America I had never experienced before. I was ordered to report to my Squadron Commander for an individual orientation to the unit briefing. As I stood rigidly at attention I looked down and saw that he was an African American. Wow. Other than one of my drill sergeants in Basic and Officer Training, I had never been under the command of anyone whose skin was not the same color as mine.

This African American gave me the gift of my lifetime career. He gave me a direct order to perform volunteer service in my off duty hours by engaging in university teaching for the University of South Carolina. And he specifically told me to whom I was to report to arrange this. That was a life changing event.

A few weeks later I walked in to the President’s office of Morris College, a small, historically black private college in Sumter, S.C. I told his secretary I wanted to see about being a volunteer, non- compensated, adjunct instructor. It was a very awkward moment for her. But she secured the willingness of the President to meet with me. He was very polite to me and thanked me and told me he would take my offer under consideration. But I never heard further. I didn’t realize how he must have thought I was from another planet. In 1967 white men just didn’t walk in off the street and offer to teach for free at a black college. Coincidentally, I am spending a day on this campus this coming August.

During this same spring term of 1967, one night I was eating in the hospital “chow hall” and a call came out for volunteers to take an ambulance out behind the black gate where there was a civilian who had been reported as having been struck by a car. I volunteered. When we arrived at the scene we found an African American man already dead. So we called the Sumter County EMT operation but we did not specify the race of the deceased. When they arrived, they told us that they would have to send the coroner’s pick up truck, because they only put white people in that ambulance.

I soon noted in South Carolina that there were many restaurants that had signs on the front door proclaiming “WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE.”

Late that spring, as my first college course was into final exam period, I drove to the nearby Poinsett State Park in search of a quiet restful place to grade my students’ final exams. I engaged a park ranger in conversation. He told me the federal government had ruined his beloved park because now “colored” people would “take over” the park and whites would not want to come. I guess he assumed that because I was white that he could share this with me. In my ensuing 31 years in South Carolina, I participated in many family reunions in South Carolina state parks. Yes, blacks did indeed come. But so did whites. The prophecy of doom was totally unfounded.

The following fall, 1967, on the opening night of my Sociology 101 class at a Regional Campus of the University of South Carolina, I began my class of 80 students, on a Friday night at 7.30. One, only one, student, was black. And he sat in the very back row. I knew that this was a moment of history. He alone was racially integrating this campus. After I went over the syllabus I asked if anyone had any questions.  A white male student said “Yes, sir, I want to know what you think about us having to have N—— in our class.” I couldn’t believe—didn’t want to believe– what I was hearing. I knew this was it. I was about to loose the whole ballgame. So I decided I would try to finesse it. My reply, delivered with my best scowl was: “I don’t believe I heard you. Would you care to repeat your question?” I hoped he got my not so subtle message and would not repeat the question. But he did. So I said: “This time I heard you. And you have just violated one of the principles of this course which is that we all are going to respect each other’s dignity regardless of differences in our demographic characteristics. Now do you have any other questions?” Surely he would get the message and let the matter drop. But he didn’t. So this time I said in the best bluff I could muster up: “Look, I am an Air Force trained killer and if you don’t get up and leave this classroom I am going to come down your row and bodily remove you!” He rose and walked out.  I honestly don’t know what I would have done had he remained in the classroom.

From 1983-96 I was the University’s Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for that campus and in that capacity I came each year to the graduation ceremony. And as I looked out into the totally, racially integrated audience, I thought of that one brave young man who took that class with me in 1967 and paved the way for all these other students.

During the next semester, in late February, 1968, I was teaching Sociology 101 one weekday night to Nursing students enrolled in a degree program the University was offering at a small hospital in a rural county seat in Orangeburg, about 45 miles from the State’s capitol. Literally as the class was underway, all hospital operations were thrown into pandemonium as the victims from a mass shooting were brought into the hospital. That night was the occurrence of what went down in US history as “the Orangeburg Massacre.” Thirty-three black college students, part of a larger crowd who had been protesting the refusal of white owner of a bowling alley to admit blacks to his business (four years after the Civil Rights Act), were all shot in the back, by the SC Highway Patrol. Three of them died. Congress responded by passing the Omnibus Crime Control Act to provide funds for training of police and national guard troops in crowd control tactics. So two years later when white students rioted at my university, they were not shot but they were tear gassed. That was progress. The highway patrol shooters were processed in both the state and federal judicial systems and no jury would convict them.

Later in Spring term, 1968, Martin Luther King was murdered on a Thursday. My class was the next evening. So I decided to deliver a homily about his life and times and suspended all other regular class activities. That class became only about Dr. King’s life and accomplishments. I did a reading from four different pieces of his writings. The next Friday night, the campus chief executive officer met with me and told me that a group of students had come to see him complaining that I was a “N—– Lover.” I was urged to refrain from class consideration of “controversial” topics, including most notably, the war in Vietnam.

I had come to work full-time at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, in the fall of 1970. I had my military experience honorably behind me, and also two years as an Instructor of History at the former state supported women’s normal school, Winthrop College. Although I was popular with the students there and respected by my colleagues, I had run afoul of the administration, which non-renewed me because of my liberal civil rights activities. Specifically, that meant they were displeased with another professor and me who had founded a local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

To my relief, and delight, in contrast, I found that academic freedom was alive and well at the University of South Carolina. Before leaving Winthrop I had taught one summer in its Upward Bound program. Federal site inspectors found the program in non-compliance for establishing a hostile climate towards the students. After arriving at USC I applied for a summer teaching position with the University’s own Upward Bound program, for which I was accepted on the faculty. The director of that program, the University’s then chief student affairs officer, a salty retired naval officer, told me: “Well, if you enjoyed teaching in that other lousy Upward Bound program, you are going to have an orgasm in our program!” The USC program did not quite live up to that literal billing but it was transformative for me as a young college professor. What I learned were two things: 1) how to motivate students when I could not use grades as the carrot or stick; and 2) how to understand and empathize with black kids who had grown up in de jure segregated school systems.

I learned that my USC had been the first southern predominantly white university to seek and accept an Upward Bound program in 1966, because we were the first to commit to racially integrate the residence halls, a requirement of receiving the federal grant.

And this extraordinary Upward Bound program showed our President what could be done and should be done for all entering students, and not just the relatively few who received special funding from the Federal government. What he had seen in Upward Bound in terms of student transformation led him to incorporate a number of similar experiences into the design he influenced for the launching of our now famous, University 101 course. He invited me to a summer think tank to design that course in 1972 and two years later, I was his third choice to become the first faculty director of that program, but the first two turned him down. Unlike me, they were both tenured full professors.

Three years after we launched University 101, it was discovered by my beloved USC colleague, Paul Fidler, in research he conducted on the effectiveness of University 101, that black students who participated in University 101 were achieving greater gains in predicted versus earned GPA’s and retention than were white students. I took great satisfaction in this unintended reverse discrimination in favor of these students whose ancestors in SC had been enslaved and discriminated against ever since.

In 1974 I represented my alma mater, Marietta College, at the inauguration of a new president at the South Carolina Episcopalian HBCU, Voorhees College. There I witnessed the amazing spectacle of the former segregationist Dixiecrat candidate, Strom Thurmond, sitting through that whole ceremony and courting the black vote. Times had changed thanks to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Now “those people” could vote.

My university also became in the 70’s the first of our institutional peer group to have an African American become SGA President. This was truly national “news” and Walter Cronkite ran it as his lead story one night, to my pride and pleasure. That young man later became a psychiatrist and a member of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Faculty.

For much of my time at USC black students had higher graduation rates than our white students. In 1986 my colleague, Michael Welsh, did a study, supported by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, contrasting the characteristics of black students who graduated as compared to black students who had not graduated. What he found was that the graduates were more likely:

  1. to have taken University 101
  2. to have been a member of a black greek affiliated student organization
  3. to have had a black roommate as a first-year student
  4. to have had at least one black faculty member for a course
  5. to have been a member of a student organization that was advised by a black faculty or staff member

In 1998, the year before I left South Carolina for North Carolina, everything seemed to come full circle. For one thing, a former student of mine who had been my undergraduate advisee in our Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies degree program, David Beasley, ran for a second term as Governor. One of his platform planks as the Republican candidate, was for the removal of the Confederate flag. He was resoundingly defeated. The candidate who did win, the son of one of my fellow faculty members, invited me to the Inaugural Ball. At this black tie event, I noticed an African American gentleman whom I thought I recognized. Then it hit me. This was Gary Bell whom I had taught in Upward Bound about 25 years previously. I approached him and addressed him as “Mr. Bell.” He quickly corrected me and suggested I address him as “Dr. Bell.” We caught up on each other’s lives and I learned that he had gone on to undergraduate school at Tuskegee and then to medical school and then returned to practice medicine in Columbia. He gave me feedback that I have never forgotten. He told me that I was his first teacher who had ever asked him to write anything, which meant that I assumed he had any ideas worth writing. When he told me this at first I found it hard to believe. But he assured me, that up to that point in his school history, he had never been asked to write anything, literally. For Dr. Bell had been another one of my students who had come up through the segregated school system of South Carolina, where black kids had shorter school year terms and vastly inferior education for, as we all knew, too much education could ruin a good field hand.

For most of my time at the University I saw what I believed was a powerful laboratory at work for how we all could live, work, recreate, eat, date, marry, raise families together. We were the new south. The Confederate flag flying proudly just a block from the University campus did not represent the University—or most of the state that I had come to know. It has been time, for a long time, to remove that symbol of the power structure that enslaved other human beings, once and for all.

My experiences such as those related above, have made me whatever it is that I am today as an educator and citizen. I am grateful to South Carolina, for all that is has taught me, for better or worse. I believe that henceforth, things are in the direction of “for the better.” I want that for my two grandchildren who live there and for all  their fellow citizens.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


+ four = 10