Civil rights leader eager to chart new course at Voorhees

DENMARK -- Cleveland Sellers' pride in Voorhees College is evident.

He is eager to show it off, eager for others to see what he sees in its open campus and historic buildings.

It's like the pride a 17-year-old has in his first car. It might have a few dents, but, with a few alterations and a good driver, it could be a showstopper.

Sellers is Voorhees' new driver. His first day on the job was June 16. His first order of business is pounding out the dents and get the college pointed in the right direction again.

Voorhees had a difficult year last year. Enrollment has dipped in recent years, making for tight budgetary times.

Some of those difficulties were typical of what small colleges serving mainly poor students face in a tough economy. Others were brought on by scandal.

Sellers, an S.C. civil rights leader and the former director of the University of South Carolina's African American Studies program, appears undaunted by the challenges at Voorhees. Instead, he seems invigorated by them. Figuratively and literally, he is home again.

"It's a refreshing experience to be back here again," Sellers said. "I'm excited to be back. I hope that excitement is shared by alumni and faculty."

Teaching among poverty

Voorhees College is a small, private liberal arts school in Denmark, a little town in the north-central section of Bamberg County.

It was founded in 1897 by a black woman, Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, a former student of famed black educator Booker T. Washington.

The school's administration building, a former hospital, is named in Washington's honor.

Wright's dream was to find a way to educate black students in Bamberg County, a significant challenge in the years when the heady optimism of Reconstruction had given way to lynchings, beatings and systemic mistreatment of black citizens.

But Wright got the school off the ground. In 1924, Voorhees became affiliated with the Episcopal Church, a tie that remains to this day and is illustrated by an elegantly constructed 73-year-old chapel that stands at the heart of the campus.

Cleveland Sellers grew up not far from the Voorhees campus. His high school was on the college's campus.

In those years -- Sellers graduated from Voorhees High in 1962 -- local students mingled with others from New York, Chicago and even some from Africa.

As the years went by, however, fewer and fewer students from far-away places chose to attend Voorhees.

However, the school kept its focus on educating students from the area, kids who might not be ready for or interested in larger, more selective colleges.

Voorhees makes no secret of its efforts to get those students on campus.

Admissions standards are modest: a high school diploma or high-school-equivalency degree, a grade-point average of 2.0 a C or higher. Students are accepted year-round, and transfer credits generally are accepted if the student has earned at least a "C" in classes taken at another accredited institution.

The school faces a difficult juggling act.

Its tuition is steep, $14,326 a year.

Voorhees' challenge is to maintain its reputation and operate while attracting students from the area, many of whom can't afford its tuition without assistance.

A tough economy making it harder to raise money, harder to pay to improve facilities, harder to attract faculty and staff adds to the challenge.

600 students sought

Sellers has his own plans to raise money for Voorhees.

The school needs to have about 600 students to be economically viable, he said. Last year's enrollment was 554.

Sellers wants to hire someone to oversee alumni and media outreach as well as fundraising.

Voorhees' biggest selling point these days is probably Sellers himself.

He said he wasn't always a black college's leadership ideal.

Sellers was among those shot during the Orangeburg Massacre, a desegregation protest in 1968.

He was jailed after the protest and, afterward, felt compelled to live outside of South Carolina.

Black colleges, Sellers said, were reluctant to give him leadership opportunities, fearful that he improperly would influence students or that his role in the massacre would scare away donors.

"They were concerned about the FBI profile," he said. "They bought the line: These were rabble-rousers. These were people who were causing trouble."

But Sellers climbed the academic ladder, returning to the Denmark area, where he grew up, and working at USC, where he rose to become director of African American Studies.

Andrew Billingsley, a USC professor who worked under Sellers, described him as a caring department head who understood academia and how to relate to students.

"He was very generous," Billingsley said. "He went with me on some of my research in different parts of the state. I didn't know a lot of people. He was well known."

In Bamberg County, Sellers' picture is on billboards. Voorhees is touting the start of a new era.

That's a message Voorhees is happy it can send now.

Last year, a federal jury ruled in favor of a former professor who sued the college and its then-president, Lee Monroe, alleging sexual harassment. The trial and ruling were an embarrassment for Voorhees, whose board fired Monroe.

"It was a bad deal," said Marshall Bass, chairman of the Voorhees trustees. "We're moving on."

Bass said he couldn't be happier about moving on with Sellers in the driver's seat.

"He's bright," Bass said. "He comes from that area. He's the right guy to be there. We made the right choice."