Taps 1975 yearbook photo of Student League for Black Identity in front of Fort Hill. Source: Colette Robinson Davis & TigerPrints.

Generation 6 (1963 onward): Desegregation Generation

 The story of Clemson’s desegregation in 1963 has traditionally been held up as an example of administrative diplomacy and bureaucratic processes triumphing in a potentially explosive situation. However, that narrative, which lays claim to the characterization of “Integration with Dignity,” fails to reckon with the tooth-and-nail legal battle that was waged in the months leading up to January 1963, as well as the prejudice experienced by Harvey Gantt and those who came immediately after him and the bitter conflicts over racist skits and Confederate iconography across campus. The deeply entrenched notions of white superiority and the ideology of “separate but equal” from Plessy v. Ferguson did not melt away with the admission of Harvey Gantt. Gantt’s courageous fight to attend Clemson, as well as the experiences of the first Black student organization, the Student League for Black Identity, prove that racism was alive and well, both in the actions and attitudes of white students as well as the policies and actions of the administration. The stories and experiences of this first generation of Black Clemson students stand as remarkable displays of courage, determination, and a willingness to speak out and fight against the hateful words and symbols that were deployed regularly across campus. These students’ sacrifice paved the way for others, and in telling their story, Call My Name honors them for their enormous contributions and achievements.

Harvey Gantt on the stairs of Old Main in January 1963. Source: Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

As a plaque that stands in front of Old Main Hall states, Harvey Gantt was admitted to Clemson College on January 28, 1963. However, the fight that led to the front steps of Old Main began two years earlier with Gantt’s request to transfer to Clemson from Iowa State University in January 1961. When denied, he applied again in January 1962. The administration remained silent, not taking action on this second application, until eventually, Gantt’s father filed a class-action lawsuit against the school in his behalf in the summer of 1962 in Federal Court with the backing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Representing Gantt in the lawsuit was Matthew J. Perry, a renowned civil rights lawyer who would later have a distinguished career as the first Black US District Judge in South Carolina (the federal courthouse in Columbia, South Carolina, is now named after him). Gantt’s lawsuit ended up before the US Supreme Court after a series of legal maneuvers and appeals. The eventual outcome was a Supreme Court Justice issuing a order requiring Clemson to enroll Gantt in the spring semester of 1963. 

The myth of “Integration with Dignity,” however, dissolves when exposed to the realities of the lawsuit and lockdown—two facets of the entire months-long process that are omitted the South Carolina historical marker installed in front of Old Main. Gantt would complete the requirements for a degree in architecture in 1965, becoming the first Black student to graduate from the University.

Student League for Black Identity, Taps 1978 Yearbook Source: TigerPrints

Gantt’s courage and determination paved the way for others to follow in his wake, starting with Lucinda Brawley, who would later become Lucinda Gantt when the two married. She enrolled at Clemson as a mathematics major in the fall of 1963, becoming the first Black female student to attend the College. Both she and her husband are now living in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Harvey Gantt served as mayor from 1974 to 1983 and the architecture firm he established is located. The Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center on Clemson’s campus is named in their honor. 

The mid- and late 1960s saw more Black students enrolling in the school, several spending all four undergraduate years at Clemson. Larry Nazry graduated in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, becoming the first Black student to spend all four undergraduate years at Clemson; he was also the first Black member of Tiger band. In 1969, Delores Kimes and Dorothy Ashford, whom Nazry helped to recruit, and and Laverne Williams graduated, becoming the first three Black women to earn degrees. Wayne Jenkins, track and field, and Craig Mobley, basketball, became the first Black student-athletes with scholarships in 1969. In 1972, James Bostic became the first Black student to earn a doctoral degree from Clemson, receiving his PhD in Chemistry. Bostic continues to be involved in scholarship funding, supporting athletics, and developing endowments on campus, receiving the Clemson Medallion, the university’s highest public honor, in 2016. Their achievements speak to their dedication and courage to attend a school that fought to keep Black men and women out for over 70 years.

Charles Williams, first president of SLBI from The Tiger newspaper
Source: TigerPrints.

The mid- and late 1960s saw more Black students enrolling in the school, several spending all four undergraduate years at Clemson. Larry Nazry graduated in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree 

After Martin Luther King’s assassination in the spring of 1968, several Black students on campus founded Clemson’s first Black student organization, the Student League for Black Identity (SLBI). Over the next few years, students like Charles “Gus” Williams and Joseph Grant, among many others, would fight for representation and equality both on and off campus. The SLBI sponsored “Talk-Ins,” where they would invite guest speakers to facilitate conversations regarding race, education, and history, inviting all students to attend. Additionally, they sponsored and participated in theater productions, musical performances, and community outreach. The most vocal members of the group wrote scathing critiques of the timidity of the administration in responding to acts of racism and hostility on the part of white students. During Homecoming season in 1969, the SLBI protested the blackface skits during Tigerama and the display of Confederate flags and memorabilia and the Country Gentleman mascot at athletic events, provoking vicious backlash from white students on campus. As a result, approximately sixty Black students left campus out of fear for their personal safety. The Confederate symbols were eventually removed from university-sponsored events, and that fight served as a precursor to others that would occur throughout the decades that followed—conflicts over Confederate symbology at the South Carolina State House, the decision to rename Old Main Hall after the self-avowed violent racist Benjamin Tillman, and the ever-continuing fight to be treated as a part of and included in the “Clemson Family.”

The experiences of the pioneering first generation of African American students at Clemson serve to complicate narratives that historians and administrators have used to paint desegregation as a seamless process. Through telling the stories of the first Black students on campus, Call My Name hopes to illustrate the underlying motives and processes that created resistance to desegregation and friction once Black students arrived on campus. These motives and processes still exist today in some form, with many conflicts bearing similarity to those of the past—the desegregation generation’s courage in resisting the administration and other students is reflected in the struggles of the generations of student activists that followed them.

Works Cited

  1. “Integration with Dignity,” by George McMillan, The Saturday Evening Post, March 16, 1963.
  2. The Tiger Vol. LXIII No. 10 – 1969-10-24 (1969). Tiger Newspapers 1969, 2.