Black Radicalism and the “Tuition-Free” University

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane Sanders, speaking with supporters at the Agriculture Center at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona, March 19, 2016. Credit: Gage Skidmore

During the presidential primaries of 2016, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders promoted a policy that, for many, was a radical idea. As an unapologetic Democratic Socialist, Sanders proposed that the United States make public universities and colleges “tuition-free.” He asserted that the maneuver would ensure students graduate debt-free, and as valuable economic players. Many young voters, overburdened with increasing student debt, expressed enthusiasm for the idea. Skeptics, on the other hand, dismissed the idea as unrealistic. Due to this scrutiny, Sanders adjusted the connotations of the message, proposing that tuition-free institutions were not a “radical idea.” He pointed to Scandinavian countries and Germany as examples of modern economies that integrated affordable options in higher education.

Sanders’ hesitation to espouse this “radical” idea is understandable. Maintaining one’s political capital rests, at least partially, on terminology, and many associate radical ideas with abrupt, sweeping changes that are antithetical to their construction of American values. Sanders hoped to assuage any concerns by citing successful examples from Northern Europe. Some commentators noted, however, that universal education is not a novel idea in the United States and cited the 1868 Organic Act charters of the University of California. The act declared that, pending financial security, “admission and tuition shall be free to all residents of the state.”

For many progressive Americans, California’s formerly tuition-free colleges and universities epitomize the possibilities attached to affordable public education in American history. But few know that another state, South Carolina, contemporaneously wrote its own Constitution that went even further. South Carolina would become the only state to attend to class and race in its legislation governing educational equity, recognizing the necessity of enfranchising and integrating its large, formerly enslaved population into the public arena.

University of South Carolina, founded in 1801. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As South Carolina emerged from the Civil War it promoted, albeit briefly, some of the most radical educational policies the United States had ever witnessed. Though a white supremacist government gripped the state throughout the colonial and antebellum periods, the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War completely restructured South Carolina’s voting bloc. During Reconstruction, it was one of the few states that held a majority Black population, and Black men helped form the state’s Republican party in 1867 to challenge the Democrats in 1868. Their endeavors proved successful. Following the election, Black men comprised a large portion of the state’s office holders, claiming seventy-three of the 124 delegates in the state government. Despite terrorism from paramilitary white supremacist organizations, Black political engagement remained a compelling part of the state’s structural reforms and helped spur changes to the state’s inequitable social policies.

The newly elected body sought to radically transform South Carolina’s reputation by drafting a new state constitution. Hoping to integrate its large Black population into the functions of citizenship, South Carolina pushed further than any other state in its calls for educational equity. Article 10, Section 10 of the 1868 Constitution legislated that “all the public schools, colleges, and universities of this state supported in whole or in part by the public funds shall be free and open to all the children and youths of the State, without regard to race or color.” This single section revolutionized South Carolina’s system of public education. The notion that a university could be “free and open…without regard to race or color” in a state that, only a few years prior, heavily invested in racial slavery, issued a sweeping challenge to the twin barriers of racism and classism that plagued the antebellum period.

T. McCants Stewart, 1887. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Constitution of 1868 initiated a compelling change in the state’s race relations, as it allowed Black men to pursue degrees from the University of South Carolina alongside white students. On October, 1873, Henry E. Hayne, born a free person of color in Charleston, SC, was the first person of African descent to officially enroll in the university. Unsurprisingly, many students protested, faculty resigned, and conservatives claimed integration would be the university’s downfall. In 1875, a group of students responded with a bold challenge to the naysayers in a column for the Daily Union-Herald: “It was prophesied that the admission of colored students would never be endured—that it would break up the University, but white and colored students are now pursuing their studies amicably together, and there is no war of races.”1 In 1874, T. McCants Stewart, a Black man born free in Charleston, South Carolina, described the campus setting in an op-ed published by the New National Era:

“I want it distinctly understood that the University of South Carolina is not in possession of any one race…the two races study together, visit each other’s rooms, play ball together, and walk into the city together, without the blacks feeling honored or the whites disgraced.”

Tuition abatements were crucial for attracting high-caliber students from both within and outside the state, but many others held familial responsibilities that prevented full dedication to higher learning. In response, the legislature developed competitive “state scholarships.” Referred to as “free students,” each applicant had to pass an exam in front of their county’s Board of Directors.2 William Henry Heard, born a slave in Elbert County, Georgia, obtained one such scholarship after he migrated to South Carolina in 1873 to teach school: “There were scholarships in each county, and any boy over sixteen years of age and under twenty-one years could compete for these scholarships. Abbeyville County, in which I lived, was entitled to five. I won one of these scholarships, entered the University and received twenty dollars per month. With that I supported my family and myself.”3 Heard’s testimony suggests the scholarship toppled two of the most significant barriers facing the rural poor: educational costs and financial support.

Despite the University of South Carolina’s gains during Reconstruction, a white supremacist government retook the state in 1877 and sought to erase any trace of the period between 1873-1877. White administrators burned the records of the desegregated university and hoped its memory perished in the flames.

Economic historians debate the fiscal strength of South Carolina from 1868-1877. Historians in the early twentieth century criticized the government’s excessive spending; but scholars like Lerone Bennett, Jr. found the state produced a larger amount of cotton than before the war and its citizens, both Black and white, benefited from the expansion of social services.4 In her path breaking master’s thesis, Pamela Mercedes White argues that, “if the first duty of any educational institution is to its students, the Radical University was a success.” Additionally, it is important to note that the three-year experiment was crushed before it could bear its fruits. Many Black students fled South Carolina after 1877 to pursue their degrees elsewhere, and the university’s alumni often found the state inhospitable to their ambitions. Thus, the newly educated Black populace, comprising medical doctors, lawyers, clergymen, business entrepreneurs, diplomats, and teachers, could not reinvest their talents into the state’s economy. The short-sighted assumptions of racists prevented a long-term stimulus to a poverty-stricken state devastated by civil war less than a decade earlier.

US politicians do not need to turn their focus toward countries in Northern Europe to evince the benefits of a tuition-free education. The evidence lies within this country’s history, especially among a group of people who deeply understood the value of accessible education as they emerged from slavery. It is high time the largely unknown innovators of free education in the United States are properly credited by American politicians and pundits. Given the myriad possibilities that the University of South Carolina provided to previously disenfranchised citizens in its brief existence, perhaps a second “Radical Reconstruction” can correct the current educational tumult in the United States.

  1. “To the Editor of the Daily Union-Herald,” Students, 1875, Fisk P. Brewer Papers, South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, SC.
  2. “J.K. Jillson to Franklin J. Moses, Jr., Feb. 27, 1873,” Superintendent of Education, Correspondence: General, Box 3, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, SC; “State Scholarships,” The Orangeburg News (June 6, 1874); “April 4th, 1874,” Cornelius C. Scott Papers, 1872-1916, South Carolina Library, Columbia, SC.
  3. William Henry Heard, From Slavery to the Bishopric in the AME Church. An Autobiography (Philadelphia, PA: AME Book Concern, 1924), 36-37.
  4. Lerone Bennett, Jr., “South Carolina: Postbellum Paradise for Negroes,” Ebony no. 3 (Jan. 1966), 116-122.

Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Associate Professor in African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.

Comments on “Black Radicalism and the “Tuition-Free” University

  • That Tyler Parry is terrific, I always find his material very interesting.

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