HBCUs and the Red Scare

Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old African American student, walks to school at Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 4, 1957, amid jeers from students and others opposed to school integration. To the right is her friend Edwin Tompkins. Douglas Martin, The Charlotte News, 5  September 1957 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, racial tensions rose as African Americans began immediately submitting school desegregation petitions. In South Carolina, white supremacists used legal and extralegal methods to launch a full-scale assault against civil rights activists. Faculty and students at Black colleges and universities became major targets of these methods. For instance, when South Carolina State University and Claflin University students joined a boycott against segregationist-owned businesses in 1956, the legislature targeted South Carolina State students, and school administrators expelled the student activists. Some expelled students transferred to private HBCUs, such as Allen University and Benedict College. These institutions were safer for activists because their reliance on philanthropic support, rather than state funds, protected them from the political impulses of governors and state legislatures.

Unable to use state funding to control students and faculty at private Black colleges, South Carolina segregationists turned to more creative methods. On September 9, 1957, Governor George Bell Timmerman, Jr., and the State Board of Education withdrew Allen University’s teacher certification in a closed-door meeting. The decertification meant that Allen’s graduating education majors would not be certified to teach in South Carolina. The board did not explain why they took this action, but an unidentified board member said it was connected to the university’s refusal to fire three professors. When the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) made inquiries, Gov. Timmerman replied curtly that it was none of their business. But the AAUP was concerned about Allen’s graduates and the fate of academic freedom and tenure for Allen faculty.

The three professors in question were John G. Rideout, Edwin Hoffman, and Forest Oran Wiggins. Wiggins was Black, but Rideout and Hoffman were white—proving that whiteness did not protect people who challenged the South’s racial mores. The US House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had files on Rideout and Hoffman. According to Allen University president Frank R. Veal, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigated the three faculty members but “could find no proof to support the claims” that they were Communists or communist sympathizers. He acknowledged that two of the professors had HUAC files, but their main transgressions were that they signed “certain petitions” or lent their names “as sponsors of certain programs,” or attended “certain meetings,” or participated in “lawful elections.” Veal and his colleagues concluded that all the alleged offenses fell within the professors’ constitutionally guaranteed rights. He simply didn’t have enough evidence to recommend the three professors’ dismissal.

But Gov. Timmerman made it difficult for Veal and his colleagues to maintain this stance. On January 15, 1968, Timmerman made the Allen faculty members a central part of his address to the legislature—without addressing them by name. He used their membership or participation in allegedly subversive organizations to make dubious claims of communist connections. For instance, he said one was a leader in the New Hampshire Progressive Party, which was “dominated by C.P.” while another was an educational director in the Idaho Pension Union, which he called “a subversive organization.” He charged a third with having his name in the University of Minnesota library bookshop, which he deemed a “CP setup.”

Timmerman’s mudslinging may have rallied his supporters, but it also rallied Black community members to defend Allen and Benedict. For instance, civil rights activist and Benedict alumnus Modjeska Simkins wrote a letter to the editor of the Columbia Record. She mentioned that for a long time Benedict provided a first grade through college education because they were filling a need that state refused to meet. The college had a long history of training teachers and creating “a type of leadership that otherwise would have been lost.” To Simkins the Governor’s actions embodied the “denial of democratic opportunity to Negroes” that “made such institutions as Allen, Benedict and Claflin indispensable.” Simkins questioned why these professors were being targeted and why Benedict’s board felt so much pressure to dismiss them. In particular, she wondered if the State Board of Education also threatened Benedict with decertification. She reminded her readers that abdicating to the Governor’s demands could result in the university losing its accreditation from the Southern Association of University Professors.

With Allen University’s certification uncertain, some students decided it was time to desegregate the University of South Carolina (USC). A group of eleven Allen University students—comprised mostly of education majors, but also four ministers—went to USC to get applications. The director of the Examination and Counseling Bureau, W. C. McCall, refused to give them applications on the grounds that the school’s policies prevented him from examining Black applicants. But the students argued that “segregation per se is unconstitutional” and managed to somehow get applications elsewhere. Their applications for admission were rejected, but the students planned to pursue legal action. One week later, four Benedict College students followed suit and went to USC to request applications. According to one student, Mr. McCall asked, “What’s the matter? Are you having trouble at Benedict?” The student responded, “No, but I think they have better facilities here than at any private college. I am a taxpayer and a lifelong resident and I want to enroll.”

The students’ actions were met with vitriolic racism. One USC student shouted, “Here come the n******s” while the Allen group was on campus. USC students also hung a Black person in effigy. A nine-foot cross was lit on fire in front of the Russell House. And although the students were very clear that they acted on their own, Allen officials received phone calls threatening to blow up the school if the student activism continued. Even the law itself was malicious. According to state law, if a state-supported school admitted Black students, South Carolina would not only close down that school but also South Carolina State College.

In May, Allen University and Benedict College acquiesced to the Governor and State Board of Education’s demands. Both schools chose not to rehire the professors Timmerman labeled as communists. Furthermore, Allen began requiring new hires to sign a statement affirming they were not members or sympathizers of subversive organizations. And now that they had effectively fired the professors, Allen’s leadership expected the State Board of Education to reinstate their teacher certification. Yet, when the State Board of Education met on May 16, 1958, they did not address Allen’s recertification. Finally, on June 20, the State Board of Education met with the Governor and recertified Allen’s teacher training program, ensuring its graduates could be certified to teach in South Carolina. Allen got its recertification, but at the cost of academic freedom.

Timmerman’s accusations against Allen and Benedict were not just a smear campaign but a fear campaign. He used his position as governor, and the broader context of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and the Cold War, to buttress his career and pursue his political agenda.

Part of that agenda included convincing the state legislature that it was necessary to create a state (similar to HUAC) with the power to subpoena and hear testimony and investigate communism. And in this regard, Timmerman’s methods were successful. In April of 1958, the state legislature created a committee of three House members and three Senators, and Timmerman signed the legislation to make the committee permanent.

This chapter in South Carolina’s history signaled the changing tides of a civil rights movement that was becoming increasingly youthful, militant, and more oriented towards direct-action protests. In 1960, when sit-ins, marches, and protests seemed to erupt across the US South, student activists at South Carolina State College, Claflin College, Allen University, and Benedict College helped lead the charge. And although the Allen and Benedict students who tried to desegregate the University of South Carolina in 1958 were unsuccessful, they did pave the way for three students (Robert G. Anderson, Henrie Monteith Treadwell and James L. Solomon Jr.) to finally desegregate the school in 1963.

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Candace Cunningham

Candace Cunningham, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of History, and specializes in African American history, Women and Gender studies, and Public History. Her research is on the 20th century African American experience with a special emphasis on civil rights, education, gender, and the South. Her 2021 article, “‘Hell is Popping Here in South Carolina’: Orangeburg County Black Teachers and Their Community in the Immediate Post-Brown Era” was published in the History of Education Quarterly. She recently collaborated with the Boca Raton Museum of Art to conduct oral histories and write an essay that will accompany a photography exhibit on Pearl City, a Boca Raton’s oldest neighborhood, and its only historically black community. She is currently finishing her manuscript on Black teacher activists in the civil rights movement. You can follow her on Twitter @candace_n_c.