COLUMBIA— Fifty years to the day after James Solomon and Henrie Monteith broke the color barrier at the University of South Carolina, they retraced their steps to the door of the administration building to remember and to look ahead.
The two former students were honored along with the family of the third black student, the late Robert Anderson, at a ceremony recalling the peaceful integration of the university. That historic transition was in stark contrast to the racist and often violent fights to prevent black students from enrolling at other Southern schools.
Solomon and Monteith, whose married name is Treadwell, said it’s good to commemorate the progress of that one event, but more must be done to ensure equal opportunity for all people.
“We must remember and embrace our history, so as not to repeat it,” Solomon said. He said it’s a reminder of “how far we have come in a short period of time,” but he added, “we must also always use it as a measure of where we can be.”
Solomon, Monteith and Anderson weren’t the first blacks to enroll at a major university in South Carolina. Eight months earlier, Harvey Gantt had stepped onto the campus of Clemson University. And the University of South Carolina didn’t integrate without a fight. Monteith sued to enter the school and her lawyer, civil rights pioneer Matthew Perry, brokered her acceptance.
But the newspapers of the day show how quietly it happened. As other front-page headlines that week recounted George Wallace’s refusal to let black students into Alabama schools, the lead story from Columbia’s morning newspaper read: “The University of South Carolina registered three Negro students Wednesday in peace and dignity.”
University President Harris Pastides said the students’ courage that day was amazing. He said he couldn’t imagine the fear they felt walking down the steps of the Osborne Administration building after all the trouble other places.
“There were only nine steps for everybody else who entered Osborne that day, but they were a mountain for these African-American students,” Pastides said.
Monteith thanked all the people who supported her 50 years ago. “So many people walked up those steps with me — carried me up those steps,” she said.
While that first day went smoothly, the students did face struggles. Before he died. Anderson described how people would bang on his dorm room door at night and run away. Monteith and Solomon said people’s hearts didn’t change instantly, but they both said they love the university and the opportunities it gave them.
Columbia attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson, one of South Carolina’s first black lawmakers during the civil rights era, said the steps those students took that day were the beginning of a lifetime of making the world a better place. Anderson would become a social worker in New York City. Solomon had lengthy career with the Department of Social Services in South Carolina, retiring as the agency’s commissioner. And Monteith conducts research at Morehouse School of Medicine, where she studies health care for underserved populations.
“Since they left this university, they have consistently engaged in a pattern of activities dedicated to helping their fellow man,” Johnson said.
After the ceremony on the steps, university officials broke ground for a new Desegregation Commemoration Garden beside the administration building. It will feature topiary statues with a unity theme and words from poet Nikki Finney on marble steps.
Finney said she doesn’t know what she will write for those steps. But she said the world still needs a change of heart in the way people treat each other.
“I don’t want a place where they just let me in,” Finney said. “I’m grateful to be let in the door, but I also want somebody to listen to me when I say a hard thing that needs to be said.”
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