When I talked with my friend Allen Stokes about speaking to supporters of the South Caroliniana Library, he thought it might be useful-perhaps even modestly interesting-to explain why I decided to return to the University of South Carolina after a thirty-eight-year absence and to reflect on my decision two years later. I hesitated; I've said something about this issue a couple of times in other contexts and, if you are a prisoner trapped in a re-run of some of these observations, I apologize. I agreed, in part, because I thought it might be useful for me to do a kind of summing up of what I expected and what I've found in returning to South Carolina. It was only afterwards that the old saw began running through my mind: "Young men write resumes; old men write memoirs." By then it was too late.
In some ways I'm like a foreign visitor who has been asked to give his impressions of this new land he is visiting. I left here in 1962 and-except for a few brief visits to see old friends and to visit my family near Florence-I have lived outside South Carolina for nearly forty years. But perhaps there is something to be learned from having known a place intimately-at least as intimately as a student can know a place-and then returning after a generation. Change that has come gradually may seem imperceptible to those of you who have lived through the process. It doesn't seem imperceptible to me.
I was born in rural Florence County on the eve of World War II; I grew up on a farm that had been owned by my father's family since the 1750s. (My mother's family had been latecomers; they didn't arrive from North Carolina until after the revolution). Unlike my parents who had been born in the age of the horse and buggy and the kerosene lantern, I had grown up in the atomic age of the 1950s, but in terms of the rhythms of my childhood life I think my world was only modestly different. Growing up it seemed a magical place of safety and childhood adventure. I was free to roam the woods and fields, to get on my Schwinn bike and travel two or three miles on an open road to visit friends and cousins. My parents felt I was safe; how could they not? The roads surrounding my home were dense with cousins, aunts and uncles, honorary relatives and neighbors who had known my parents and my grandparents for generations.
My world was circumscribed in ways difficult for my students-or my children-to imagine. We traveled little, we had no television until I was nearly seventeen, and the building where I went to grade school-two grades to the class-would be condemned in many third world countries. My high school was a ramshackle frame wooden building heated by pot-bellied coal stoves stoked each morning in a rotation shared by one of the nine male members of my graduating class.
The universe in which I lived as a child and a teenager was of course the world of the segregated South. I use the term segregated with some sense of the irony of the word. My earliest playmates were black and-beginning the summer I was nine-I worked ten-hour days, five days a week in the fields, side by side with black men and women. If it was not segregated physically, it was certainly an oppressive culture in which blacks were relegated to the bottom rung of every economic ladder and barred by law from the schools of my childhood, and by custom from the ballot box of my community. Of course I accepted this as the natural order of life; so it had been, so it would always be.
To an outsider it was a rural backwater, far more provincial and insular than anything Sinclair Lewis described in Main Street. In my case, I was lucky. At a time when middle-class women had few opportunities beyond motherhood and teaching school, I had several superb-and I do not use the word lightly-teachers who poured their lives into their work. There was even a bit of art and music. I see in the audience Betty Ann Darby-"the singing Lady" of Florence County-who used to visit our school and lead us in music classes.
In the accident of my birth I was even luckier. My mother was a Winthrop Latin-English major who read widely and made certain that my sister and I were exposed to books, poetry and music. Because of the depression of the late 1920s, my father had not even been able to finish high school, but-perhaps because of his own experience-he believed passionately in the importance of education.
I give you this background at some length, because I think it helps to explain why I found my introduction to this University so exhilarating. I had an odd Freshman and Sophomore year. James Rogers, editor of the Florence Morning News heard me give the valedictory speech at my small high school and persuaded me to enroll at the newly opened Florence branch of the University. For two years I took my classes in the basement of the Florence County Public Library and then walked the three blocks to the Morning News, where I put in a thirty-six-hour week.
Much of the work was the usual regimen of a rookie reporter-writing obituaries, covering the local tobacco warehousemen's convention and the latest multiple-car accident. But on the eve of my employment at the newspaper, local Klansmen had driven the editor out of town for daring to argue that Brown v. Board of Education was the law of the land. And even though Jack O'Dowd's successor, James Rogers, was more cautious in his editorial policies, he and most of the reporters and editors with whom I worked-particularly Joe Dabney, Dewey James and Thom Anderson-made no effort to conceal their disdain for the old order of white supremacy. There were other free thinkers in that community: people like my friend Nick Zeigler, who managed to insert a voice of calm and rationality in the midst of a feverish time in our history. By the time I stood in a noisy Kress five and ten cent store in the spring of 1960 and watched raucous whites screaming obscenities at the dozen well-dressed black young men and women sitting quietly at the lunch counter, I realized that the racial moorings of a lifetime had been severed.
The University of South Carolina to which I arrived in 1960 was, by national standards, a provincial third-tier university; to me it was a place of extraordinary excitement and energy. In Florence at the University's branch campus I had been fortunate to have teachers like Jack Thompson and Jack Russell; in Columbia, the tradition continued with Bob Ochs, Dan Hollis, George Rogers, Ray Moore and Avery Craven-a distinguished visiting professor my senior year. These were professors in the truest sense of the word, professing however sardonically at times their belief that ideas count, that knowledge and critical thinking were the greatest gifts they could give. It was Craven, the distinguished visiting professor, who sent me to the South Caroliniana Library the first time to write a paper on James Henley Thornwell. It was Dan Hollis who served as my senor thesis adviser and also dispatched me here to the library for primary research. They introduced me to the world of research and writing and convinced me that I had a future as a historian.
Nor was my education limited to the classroom. Only in the years that followed did I realize how blessed I had been by the chance to meet and work with an extraordinary group of men and women. Many memories of my childhood are gone; I honestly cannot recall the name of more than two or three graduates of the class of 1962. But there were certainly others I have not forgotten, particularly those women here in Columbia who struggled so hard to keep alive the dream of racial justice during the height of segregationist hysteria in the 1950s and early 1960s. There was Alice Spearman, the head of the South Carolina Council on Human Relations, Libby Ledeen of the University's YWCA and Mae Gautier, a young University Methodist chaplain. Through Alice, Libby and Mae I came to know James McBride Dabbs, the gentle Mayesville, South Carolina, planter turned author and civil rights leader; John Lewis, the SNCC organizer and founder whom I first met at a civil rights retreat in Highlander, Tennessee; Julian Bond, now president of the NAACP; the Rev. Will Campbell, writer, novelist and life-long gadfly; and Connie Curry who represented the National Student Association and is now an independent writer and scholar.
And there were my three apartment mates. Hayes Mizell went on to become a field organizer for the American Friends Service Committee's Southern project and eventually a key figure with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Sitting here in the audience today is Charles Joyner, who captured the memory of a low-country slave community in his eloquent book Down by the Riverside and who now teaches at Coastal Carolina. And there was my fellow historian Selden Smith, who spent his career teaching here at Columbia College.
It was also a space to come together with students from all over the state-and we were overwhelmingly from South Carolina-to try new ideas, to be challenged, to fail and then to succeed. As I look back on it, my closest friends and I could be described, in the words of Vice-President Spiro Agnew, as "nattering nabobs of negativism." We were certainly critical of our home state. We were just beginning to rediscover poverty in America and all of us knew that on this index, as well as so many others in education, public health and public services, the state was near the bottom. I remember that our half-joking refrain was always the same: thank God for Mississippi.
And of course we were preoccupied with the last death struggles of segregation. In 1961 we joined with students from Benedict College and Allen University to form the South Carolina Student Council on Human Relations, an organization that eventually involved students from Clemson, Claflin, South Carolina State, Morris Brown, Winthrop, Wofford, Furman and Converse in a series of workshops and forums. As far as I know, it was the first biracial student group created in the deep South in the 1960s.
We could only meet in a few places: Benedict, Claflin and the Methodist Center on Lady Street. We had several integrated weekend conferences and, of course, that was a violation of state law. Fortunately, the authorities in Beaufort turned a blind eye and we met at Penn Community Center. Then SLED placed us under surveillance. (I know this because the car I was driving was registered in my father's name and they called him to ask him if he knew his son was involved in "radical" activities.)
I don't mean to suggest that we were, in fact, very radical at all or that most of us faced anything like the serious harassment that individuals encountered in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. In retrospect, what I think is most important is that the University-while never endorsing our activities as an institution-created a safe place in which conventional wisdom could be challenged and new ideas, new ways of looking at our state and our nation, were allowed, if not encouraged.
And so I have nothing but a deep sense of gratitude for my alma mater and the men and women who changed my life. But, of course, when I graduated in 1962, I left the state, not with bitterness, but with sadness-with a sense that there was no future for me in the place where my family has lived for more than two hundred years. Over the next thirty-eight years I taught at Emory University, the Universities of Maryland and Wisconsin, as well as three European universities. In the early 1990s I was approached about going to two major national research universities; I declined. I assumed I would spend the rest of my career where I had been very contented.
But in the fall of 1999 I came back to the campus to receive an award and to give a talk. It was a memorable occasion. In the audience were many friends, including a number of my old professors. President Palms was there; so was William Hubbard, then chairman of the board; Dean Joan Stewart; Patrick Maney, Chair of the History Department, who I had first met when he was a graduate student at the University of Maryland. My wife had come with me; I don't think she had ever been on campus except to briefly walk through the quadrangle. But when we returned to Atlanta, she put into words what I felt: "Something special," she said, "is happening at that place."
Within a couple of weeks, first the chairman and then President Palms was in touch with the question: would I be interested in coming to Carolina? It was a frantic time; I was getting ready to leave for six months teaching in Italy and it seemed most unlikely. Hadn't I already decided to end my career at Emory?
But I couldn't get it out of my mind. I called and talked to colleagues at USC and to a number of friends around the country. I don't know how John Palms arranged it on his end, but-by the end of Christmas-I was committed to coming home.
All of this is simply a preface to trying to explain why.
In retrospect, there are a number of reasons why this has turned out to be a wonderful decision. For one, we have fallen in love with Columbia. A friend who is a New York editor-and who could never understand how I could live in a backwater place like Atlanta-was really horrified when I told her I was moving to Columbia. (A colleague at Boston University didn't even know which state USC was in-she finally asked politely if I liked living in Greensboro.) But to us, it has been a revelation: a warm and livable mid-sized city with ample cultural amenities. Having lived here, I don't think Jane and I could ever return to a life of fighting our way through the congested streets and highways of Atlanta.
Still, this is after the fact-an unexpected lagniappe if you will. What drew me back to this University was something different.
In part, I came back because it seemed to me that USC-as much as any school in this nation-was making strides toward confronting the issue that had been front and center in my early life: the divisions of race that have afflicted our state, our region and our nation since our earliest history. As I look out over my classes now, I see a quite different University-black and white; now Hispanics and a few Asians. I see a university struggling to show a state what we can be.
Last spring I taught a course called "Southern Cultures." It was an attempt to unravel the many racial and ethnic sources of our distinctive regional identity. Inevitably class discussion turned to the divisive symbol of the Confederate flag. During the class that day, one of my students finally gave vent to the sense of anger and frustration that I'm sure gripped many white South Carolinians. The Confederate flag, she argued, was a symbol of courage and bravery, not of racism. She resented people from outside the state telling us what we South Carolinians should and should not do.
Unfortunately, in this particular class, I had only one black student and I thought, "this must be a heavy burden for him to be 'the' representative of African Americans." If so, he proved up to that unfair challenge. He turned to her-I don't remember his exact words-and gently but firmly told her that his family had been in this state for a very long time, that he too was a South Carolinian. And these words I do remember: "You see the flag and you see courage and bravery," he told her and the other members of the class, "but I see the Ku Klux Klan and mob violence. You see your heritage. I see a symbol of slavery."
I'm not sure anyone changed his or her views, but I do believe that, in that moment, I saw a university struggling to become what it should be. This University of South Carolina is a faithful index to the fortunes and to the future of this state. It will stand or fall on its ability to make certain that every one of its students feels that they are not interlopers at the University of South Carolina. The same is true for this state.
I think this library has become a valuable part of that process. In their collection policies, in their programmatic efforts, Allen Stokes, Tom Johnson, Herb Hartsook and other members of the South Caroliniana have helped lead us away from those earlier narrow and racially proscriptive definitions of what it meant to be a South Carolinian-to be a Southerner. By collecting the historic documents and records of that complex and sometimes troublesome past, we take the first steps toward healing, reconciliation and unity.
Secondly, I came back because of my great hopes for this University. I felt that hope when I met administrators here. I felt it when I talked with fellow members of the faculty. While everyone was realistic about the challenges USC faced, there was a sense that building a great university was within our reach.
It takes many different groups and institutions to improve the life of a state. We must, for example, deal with such pressing issues as public safety, health care and environmental degradation. But I don't think it is chauvinism to say that a university can play an enormous role in improving the economic life of this state. The Research Triangle Universities-Duke, the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central-have certainly played that role in our sister state to the north. More recently we have seen this process at work in Georgia where my friend Zell Miller fought for the notion that you had to develop both K-1-12 and the state's system of higher education if you were going to improve the lives of all the people of Georgia. We have to develop the same sense of commitment to all levels of education in this state.
At the same time, even as we make the argument that higher education can help in raising the standard of living in this state, we should not lose sight of the notion that education is more than simply an avenue to making money and competing economically. We hear much about the value of creating a skilled and technologically proficient pool of workers for the new economy and that is certainly true. In an educational system that works as it should, students will learn how to engage in rigorous analysis, to think logically and sequentially, to speak articulately and to write good prose. Those skills undoubtedly make them good workers. But the inescapable reality is that-in the not too distant technocratic future-we will need only so many people to run the information economy; many of the rest will be marginalized and sidelined in the "service" sector with little need for highly specialized technical education. If we concentrate entirely on the utilitarian value of learning we open the way to creating a society in which there is little purpose to educate this half of the population.
To me that would be a tragedy. I believe that an authentic education involves the cultivation of the arts, an appreciation of good literature and an understanding of our culture and its history. We cannot place a market value on these pursuits, but they are the very things that allow us to live rich, rewarding and fulfilling lives. They may not always help us to make a living, but they make life worth living.
In any case, in today's South Carolina, higher education-whether in sciences or technology or the liberal arts-is in danger. All of us are aware of the growing pressures on the University's budget. Like other public institutions it faces increasing demands from the public, but we are beguiled daily by politicians who assure us that we can have our cake and eat it too. We can continue to meet these demands even as we eliminate-depending upon which politician you're listening to-the state's sales tax, property tax or income tax. It's nonsense and they know it. But they are cynically relying upon the notion that the "something for nothing" mentality of the 1980s and 1990s has so corrupted every aspect of our civic life that voters will endorse this fraud and leave the next generation to suffer the consequences.
Convincing voters that expenditures for the public good are sound investments in our future will not be easy in South Carolina; it is not easy anywhere in the America of the twenty-first century. But even though I sometimes become discouraged, I do not despair. In part that is precisely because of my life-long involvement in dealing with that seemingly most intractable of problems: race. My old friend Clarence Bacote joined the faculty at Atlanta University in 1930 and, until his death in 1981, taught and published in African-American history. During the 1930s he helped revitalize the local NAACP; during the 1940s he was one of the founders of the Atlanta Negro Voters League and created a network of "citizenship schools" to prepare black citizens for registering and voting in central Georgia. Almost every Saturday of his life, he gathered together a collection of pamphlets and leaflets and hit the streets of Atlanta, urging embittered and often defeated black folks to register, to vote and to become involved in civic and community life. This began in 1931 at a time when only a handful of African Americans could vote. He went out on those streets for year after year after year with almost no results, with little apparent prospect for change.
I once asked him how he did it. He laughed as he always did: "Easy, you just get up out of bed: you put on your britches one leg at a time and you go." But then he became more serious. "Remember what John Quincy Adams said," he told me. "You know," he said with a smile, "he was one of those 'good white guys.' Adams said, 'Think of your forefathers; think of your posterity.'" "My ancestors were slaves," he said; "they made unimaginable sacrifices for their children and their grandchildren. Can I do less for my children and my grandchildren?"
We profess to have a reverence for history in this state. What I wanted to do when I came back was to be a part of putting that commitment into action: by thinking not simply as a historian about our ancestors but thinking about our posterity.
And so must we all.