Penn Center Screens “The Education of Harvey Gantt” About the Integration of Clemson University

by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation

I have personal connections and many memories that came about at two major institutions in the state of South Carolina where I was homegrown.  The locations of these institutions are extreme juxtapositions to one another.  One is located in what is called “The Lowcountry” of the Gullah/Geechee Nation and the other is in the “Upcountry.”  One I grew up going to where I saw Gullah/Geechee elders running the space and talking about their background in education and at the other, I was able to count the people of African descent that I saw.  When I walked the halls of the latter, I never thought that the doors that opened to the halls had been pushed open by a Gullah/Geechee man that also had a vision to build institutions.  His vision of becoming an architect led to a perfect design for freedom.

During my time spent studying at Clemson University, I never heard the story of Harvey B. Gantt who was the first person of African descent to integrate that institution.  Gantt was born and raised in Charleston, SC in Gullah/Geechee Nation and was a graduate of Burke High School.   It was within those walls that Gantt started to engage in the Civil Rights movement.  Yet, his focus was not on politics nor law upon graduation.  He wanted to be an architect and he set out to explore his options.  That exploration did not take long since Clemson was the only SC college that taught this as a major at that time.  However, Clemson would not admit someone of African descent.

Gantt who had graduated second in his class, accepted a merit scholarship and funding that South Carolina would give to students that wanted to go out of state for majors that were not available to them within the state.  He ended up at Iowa State University (where I have had the honor to speak two years ago).  However, Iowa is a LONG way from South Carolina and the type of close knit community that Gantt had come up in.  He couldn’t immediately get back to his people from there.  His desire to not only get closer to home and out of the cold weather, but to also go to one of the top colleges teaching architecture in America fueled his energy to challenge the responses that he had received from Clemson.

Gantt was able to receive legal assistance from Matthew Perry of Columbia, SC in order to sue for the ability to attend Clemson College (which is now Clemson University).  The successful outcome of this allowed Gantt to be admitted to the university in 1963 from which he graduated with honors in 1965 with a degree in architecture.  However, he did not spend his time simply designing walls, he continued to work to bring down the walls of segregation by being active in the Civil Rights Movement.

As we stood in historic Penn Center, Inc. on St. Helena Island, SC in the Lowcountry, this story was told by History & Cultural Programs Director Victoria Smalls as this institution prepared for the screening of the film, “The Education of Harvey Gantt” and as we stood amidst the images that photographer Cecil Williams had captured of the historic arrival of Harvey B. Gantt at Clemson University.   This exhibit helps to bring one part of the Civil Rights Movement activities that took place in SC to the eyes of those that will visit this institution for “Black History Month.”  However, the blessing of the day was when breath was blown into these images and gave life to the exhibiting via a voice rising from the circle gathered in the gallery that said, “He is the 2nd African American that attended Clemson.” With those words, a finger pointed to Dr. Jonathan Glen.

Dr. Jonathan Glen is from St. Helena Island, SC and was in the final 1st grade class of Penn when it was a school.  He stood here to bring a voice to the images that were hanging around us and he told us the reasons that he believed that Clemson preferred to have them enter its halls without any violence taking place or being reported.  As he talked, I thought back to what I had been told had taken place with the main newspaper of South Carolina and how the media had been specifically told NOT to cover any of the sit ins and integration protest activities so that others elsewhere that supported desegregation would not come into SC as was going on in other parts of the south.  I thought about the deliberate suppression that had happened and continues to happen in this place of “Beautiful Places and Smiling Faces” and what great pains have been taken to continue to give off the appearances of southern hospitable smiles while walking over places of pain and where blood was spilled.  Just then, I turned to seem images of those from the Orangeburg Massacre that also took place in SC during the period of legal segregation.  So, once again, I saw juxtaposition-non-violence and violence used to achieve or prevent freedom and equality.

This juxtaposition of worlds where groups of people that had been separated and segregated were brought together on the grounds of one group being taught to realize that the other had every right to also be free and to be full participants in the citizenship of South Carolina and ultimately America.  What better place would there be to now examine these stories that had been left out of the classrooms and the books for so long and are now being brought to film, but Penn where Civil Rights leaders met to plan and train and rejuvenate themselves.  The fact that a multi-racial and multi-cultural group now stood here in a circle together to hear this story and be educated by it truly exemplified how Harvey B. Gantt’s life brought people together from all parts of the country.

This brief journey into his world also brought me full circle.  I had yet again been educated by these two institutions.  I now have new memories to share with those in the Lowcountry, Upcountry, and other countries.  May my telling of this expand the circle of freedom and equality even more.

In the orange vest is Jonathan Glen, the 2nd student of African descent admitted to Clemson College which is now Clemson University is amidst guests at the historic Penn Center, Inc. as History & Cultural Programs Director Victoria Smalls provides an overview on the history of Harvey B. Gantt who was the first to integrate Clemson.

In the orange vest is Jonathan Glen, the 2nd student of African descent admitted to Clemson College which is now Clemson University is amidst guests at the historic Penn Center, Inc. as History & Cultural Programs Director Victoria Smalls provides an overview on the history of Harvey B. Gantt who was the first to integrate Clemson.

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The Harvey B. Gantt Center for Afro-American Art & Culture in Charlotte, NC is a place to visit if you are heading to Charlotte, NC.  This space centers itself on the theme “where you belong.”  It is truly a tribute to a man who knew that he belonged where he could have the opportunities to do his best.

Penn Center, Inc. will host the exhibit, “Civil Rights Through the Lens of Cecil Williams” until February 28, 2013.  Call 843) 838-2432 for details.

4 Comments

  1. Great post. I enjoy South Carolina History. The topic on integrating Clemson University was especially interesting.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I love reading about South Carolina history. It was really interesting reading about integrating Clemson University and the Civil Rights movement.

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  1. Penn Center screens “The Education of Harvey Gantt” about the Integration of Clemson University | The Jubilee Project – College of Charleston

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