It wasn't an overt racism they felt, but "there was a coldness."
That's how Delores Hurt describes the experience she and her suitemate had attending Winthrop University in the 1960s as the only two African-Americans in a school of 3,000 women.
Hurt and eight other African-American alumni shared with current Winthrop students Tuesday their stories of desegregating Winthrop and of their achievements in a panel discussion titled "Achieving the Dream."
These alumni transformed Winthrop into the diverse community it is, said Debbie Garrick, executive director of alumni relations.
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The event came about as the result of Hurt's efforts to reveal how her own Winthrop experience fit into a greater story of Winthrop's integration, Garrick said. After spending some time in the library stacks, Hurt called the university.
"She decided she should be able to tell her story," Garrick said.
That story includes Hurt - who graduated and went on to many successes, including becoming a broadcast journalist in New York City and a small business owner in Columbia - crying in her room at Winthrop after her parents left her on campus.
Now she's a teacher in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.
Alumni Cynthia Roddey, who graduated in 1967, and Sheila McMillan, who graduated in 1973, joined Hurt and the other panelists Tuesday night.
Roddey, the first African-American graduate from Winthrop, and McMillan, who became Winthrop's first African-American trustee, also remember that isolation.
"I was always a class of one," said Roddey, now a professor at Clinton Junior College. "I wasn't in study groups. I didn't eat lunch with anyone."
Instead, Roddey made friends with the people who worked at the university.
Roddey and Hurt remember the dorms and showers being segregated. They didn't have much interaction with the other women, they said.
McMillan, now an attorney for the S.C. Dept. of Employment and Workforce and a former attorney in the S.C. Senate for more than 20 years, also remembers the isolation and subtle signs that conditions for African-Americans were changing.
When she arrived at Winthrop in 1970, she said, showers were integrated, but when she'd enter the shower, the white students would scatter.
Making light of the memory, McMillan said having the shower all to herself was great.
"I didn't realize that was a form of segregation," she said. "I also picked up that some people wanted to speak, but they didn't risk being ostracized by other students.
"For that reason, total acceptance didn't happen."
Eventually she felt more and more accepted.
"I've always believed in my years that familiarity breeds acceptance," she said. "Once they realized that we did the same things that they did, you could see the barriers gradually coming down."
McMillan's story after graduating from Winthrop showed how life continued to present obstacles for her.
Being an African-American woman and a lawyer in Columbia hasn't been easy, she said, especially since female lawyers of any race weren't really accepted in private practices until years after she completed her law degree.
But none of these successes seemed obvious to McMillan, when she was an eighth grader in Pageland, integrating her school.
Never would she have imagined, for example, that she'd have a student newspaper - the Roddey-McMillan Record at Winthrop - named after her.
The message to students Tuesday night was to imagine greatness for themselves, seize opportunities on campus, create unity and accept difference.
Because things only get harder, McMillan said.
"I am really going to ask (the students) to do what I didn't do," McMillan told The Herald before the panel discussion. "They should really apply themselves, because at some point, it's going to really matter."
Hurt urged students to embrace their African-American history. Racism thrives on ignorance of that history, she told students.
"We have to do our part, too. We can't rely on others to tell our story."