John Potts and Radical Student Activism

Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest on Veteran Plaza. UMD students organize protest against racism. A young lady speaks at the microphone. (Joao Kermadec/Shutterstock)

Black educator Dr. John Foster Potts may be a largely unknown figure today, but in Jim Crow-era South Carolina he stood out when he rose from the rank of elementary school teacher to college president between 1930 and 1954. Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and raised in Flat Rock, North Carolina, Potts developed a passion for Education at his alma mater, Flat Rock Elementary School where his teachers gave him “an interest in learning” that he “never forgot.”

In 1930 Potts graduated from Benedict College and became a teacher at an elementary school in Flat Rock. Within a decade, he became a Cornell University-educated history teacher who later served as a principal at two K-12 schools: Waverly Elementary School and Booker T. Washington High School. Although Potts briefly left education to serve as a recruiting specialist in the Naval Reserve during World War II, his position enabled him to build connections across South Carolina that catapulted him into numerous leadership positions, including director of the Avery Institute, president of both the Palmetto Education Association and the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, and vice president of the American Teachers Association. In these roles Potts gained experience interacting with Historically Black College and University (HBCU) presidents and working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to advocate for civil rights issues that intersected with education equality. Nevertheless it was during Potts’ tenure as the president of the college known today as Voorhees University that defined his career. Today Voorhees students benefit from Potts’ efforts to strengthen the institution by acquiring federal accreditation, negotiating Black Studies curriculum with activists, and achieving financial stability for the university.

In 1954, Potts became the president of Voorhees Junior College, a small, private HBCU in Denmark, South Carolina. The institution was historically funded by the Protestant Episcopal Church, but faced significant academic and financial problems. Under Potts’ leadership Vorhees became an accredited junior college in 1957, then a four-year accredited institution in 1962, and it conferred its first college degrees in June 1968. However, Potts’ management of student unrest during the Black Power Movement was the defining moment of his presidency. Potts’ handling of student protests exemplified how presidents at privately-run Black colleges often had more freedoms than state-funded institutions.

On April 28, 1969, approximately seventy-five Voorhees students, armed with guns and knives, took over the administration and science buildings. They proclaimed Voorhees “the liberated Malcolm X University” and plastered the walls with Malcolm X posters. A young man sporting a shotgun on his hip guarded the door and declared that no one would get in or out of the building until their demands were met. They hung a sign that said, “No Viet Cong Ever Called Me N****r” and threw leaflets from the building stating “These Students Have Secured Guns for Self Defense Purposes Only and They Have Refused to Leave the Building.” More than 100 student supporters looted the cafeteria and took approximately $5,000 worth of food—enough to feed protestors for at least a week—and delivered the food to protestors inside the buildings. An additional eighty-six students protested outside Potts’ home.

The student radicals issued a list of fourteen demands, the most significant being a Black Studies program that would lead to a degree in Afro-American Studies. The Voorhees students’ demands were part of a much larger historical moment informed by activist Malcolm X’s teachings. During the Black campus movement of 1965-1972, Black students at predominantly white institutions created Black Student Unions. Students at HBCUs demanded courses and programs in Black Studies. Central State University, Cheyney State College, Fisk University, Kent State, Northwestern, San Francisco State, San Fernando Valley State, Texas Southern, Wisconsin State, and many other schools across the nation witnessed student takeovers, protests, and class boycotts as more Black students demanded access to courses related to their history and experience.

Dr. Potts held several meetings with student representatives. Potts refused to sign anything accepting their demands because he was “concerned about bloodshed.” However Potts told reporters that he would not call the police or set a time limit for students to vacate the buildings. Instead he informed the students that he “could grant amnesty for the college only” and that he did not have the authority to save them from any criminal charges following the takeover.

On April 29th the students decided to voluntarily and peacefully exit the school buildings after coming to an agreement with the college administration. Potts chose not to engage the police, but Governor Robert McNair sent the National Guard to the campus. As a result, thirty-six students were immediately arrested on riot charges and later freed on $1000 bond each. Three other students, including student body president Cecil Raysor, were arrested in Charleston the next day and held for Bamberg County authorities.

By October 3rd the students’ demands were not met, and in response, thirty-five students held a demonstration at Potts’ home. Five students allegedly tried to force their way into the home and Dr. Potts’ wife responded by signing a trespass warrant against the students. Additionally, hundreds of students, approximately forty percent of the student body, boycotted classes that day. The Student Government Association released a statement in disapproval of the protest at the president’s home and called for “unity and harmony” to solve the school’s problems. Students later returned to classes on October 6th.

By 1969 Potts began facing health issues and took a leave of absence followed by retirement in June 1970. However Potts’ retirement from Voorhees turned out to be a temporary one. In 1983, the board of trustees asked Dr. Potts to serve as interim president when the current president, Dr. George B. Thomas, resigned. Potts agreed but soon discovered he had to manage another crucial situation at the university. Voorhees was facing such significant financial hardships that, according to one trustee member, the school wasn’t sure it could make its next payroll. Potts took immediate yet tough steps to put Voorhees on a path towards “conscientious planning” by implementing budget cuts. He slashed programs, dropped the English, History, and Humanities majors, reduced faculty salaries by ten percent, and eliminated eight faculty and five staff positions. Voorhees fundraised, seeking the support of longtime advocates like the Episcopal Church, and pursued student debt. Under Potts, Voorhees also raised funds through the federal government, which included $750,000 in low-interest federal loans to repair buildings. The university also acquired a Faculty Development Grant from the United Negro College Fund to improve teaching and obtained Federal Title III funds to purchase computers. These measures seemed to pay off. By 1984, Voorhees ended its fiscal year with a surplus. Then the board of trustees approved Potts’ five-year plan to improve student enrollment, the school’s financial planning, and faculty and academic standards. When Leonard Dawson took over the presidency in 1985, Voorhees was well on its way to recovery. In 1986 Voorhees acknowledged Potts’ contribution to the school with a dedication ceremony for the campus library. It was named the Wright-Potts Library, honoring him and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, the school’s founder.

On October 22, 1998, Potts passed away at the age of 90. He was survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren. There are many ways in which racial segregation, and its lasting legacy, defined his life and career. However, Potts’ life, dedicated to social activism, is a reminder that many Black educators did not allow segregation to limit their goals or derail the impact they could have on their communities.

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Candace Cunningham

Candace Cunningham is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida Atlantic University. She 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. In 2022, she collaborated with the Boca Raton Museum of Art to conduct oral histories and write an essay to accompany the Black Pearls photography exhibit. The exhibit showcased Pearl City, Boca Raton’s oldest neighborhood and its only historically black community. Dr. Cunningham is currently finishing her manuscript on Black teacher activists in the civil rights movement. She is currently working on her manuscript about the role of Black school teachers in the civil rights movement.

Comments on “John Potts and Radical Student Activism

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    Dr. Cunningham, thank you for this piece on a man my family and I knew well.

    Please touch base with the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston for information on a Charleston teacher-activist, Professor Eugene Hunt.
    Good luck with your project.

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