USC plans celebration of its first commencement

COLUMBIA -- At the end of the year 1807, the recently created South Carolina College had just five alumni, but it was nonetheless cause for celebration.

The governor, the Legislature and the judiciary attended the state college's inaugural commencement. Speeches were made in Latin and Greek, and speakers celebrated the virtues of democracy in the young nation.

The following year, the college's alumni grew with the addition of 30 new graduates, and the awarding of the first Master of Arts degree.

This college year, the University of South Carolina will issue about 7,000 degrees, including about 1,400 in the December commencement that will become a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the first graduation held by the one of the oldest state colleges in America.

Today, USC has about 240,000 living alumni.

"I don't know of any group that's had more influence on South Carolina for 200 years than USC alumni," said board trustee Tommy Stepp.

Yet, just a fraction of those alumni actively participate in university-affiliated groups. Stepp said one reason for the observance will be "to invite the USC family to become re-engaged."

Walter Edgar, author of "South Carolina, a History," said that USC's history has been "inextricably intertwined" with the history and development of the state.

"The South Carolina College trained the leaders of the state," Edgar said, referring to USC by its name at the time of its founding. "By looking at the first graduates and their descendants, we make it a very human story."

Newberry County's role

USC threw a big, year-long party in 2001, the bicentennial of the issue of the school's charter. The celebration being planned to mark the first commencement may not last as long, but the university plans several weeks of events that recognize the unique aspects of that first small graduating class.

For starters, all five men were from Newberry County, graduates of Mount Bethel Academy.

Newberry County citizens and business leaders are working with USC said Board of Trustees secretary Tommy Stepp, to plan an event recognizing the county's unique role in that first commencement, said Board of Trustees secretary Tommy Stepp said. Details remain in the planning stages, but Stepp said the event likely will be held in Newberry's historic Opera House.

USC officials also have been working with genealogists to identify descendants of the first graduates so they can be invited to the party.

The first graduates to receive bachelor's degrees were Anderson Crenshaw, his brother Walter Crenshaw, John Caldwell, George W. Glenn and John W. Harper.

USC officials have been working with geneologists to identify descendants of those first graduates, so the living descendants can be invited to the party.

Research so far indicates Walter Crenshaw and John Harper died while still young and left no descendants.

Anderson Crenshaw was a member of the General Assembly, later moving to Alabama, where he became a prominent leader and left many descendants, including golfer Ben Crenshaw.

John Caldwell also served in the General Assembly, and George Glenn became a physician in Newberry County.

Looking for descendants

So far, the geneologists have identified more than 200 descendants of Anderson Crenshaw, Caldwell and Glenn. Stepp said the research continues, and USC is interested in hearing from anyone else who might be descendants of the first USC graduates.

Stepp said several subcommittees are working on ways to celebrate the 200th year of USC commencements. Possibilities include a theatrical recreation of the 1807 event, music from the period, and special services to be held in Rutledge Hall, the university's oldest building.