Winthrop marks 50 years of racial integration, honors first black students

There was no National Guard on watch, or white Southern governor blocking students from registering, when Rock Hill’s womens-only college admitted its first black student in 1964.

Instead, there was 24-year-old Cynthia Roddey, of Rock Hill, quietly waiting alone to enroll for summer classes inside Tillman Hall – a building on Winthrop University’s campus that is named for a famously-racist white South Carolina governor and U.S. senator.

This week, Winthrop plans to honor Roddey and the other women – students and employees – who integrated the campus. The 50th anniversary event is called “Fulfilling the Promise,” a nod to the women who began Winthrop’s legacy of being one of the state’s most diverse colleges.

While not as violent or as infamous as the integration of other white schools across the South during the civil rights movement, Roddey’s arrival at Winthrop – then called Winthrop College – broke the school’s racial barrier.

Within a few months, three other black women followed her. Within one year, 27 black students were enrolled at Winthrop.

U.S. Supreme Court justices had said 10 years earlier that segregating blacks from whites in public schools was unconstitutional. That landmark case, Brown vs. Board of Education, was a step forward for racial equality in the country.

Public schools in South Carolina didn’t immediately integrate. Civil rights activists were still fighting for the equal treatment of black people when Roddey sought to study at Winthrop.

A few years before Roddey, other black students in Rock Hill had applied to Winthrop but were denied entrance. Before that, 19 students from the Friendship College protested at Winthrop after being denied.

Winthrop’s president and members of its Board of Trustees blamed state law for not admitting black students. Although discriminating against black students was illegal, some black applicants were denied entrance because of technical issues with their applications, according to the school’s history. School leaders were later accused of censoring white students at Winthrop by barring them from discussing integration with the news media.

Then there was Roddey, who, without actually meaning to, became Winthrop’s first black student in July 1964. She registered for school and started classes the same day.

A Rock Hill school teacher and mother of two young children at the time, “I had no idea that I was it ... I got to Winthrop by accident really,” Roddey, 74, told The Herald last week.

She had applied months before, thinking that some of her fellow teachers at Rock Hill’s Emmett Scott High School were also trying to get into Winthrop. She’d also considered enrolling at Benedict College in Columbia and a school in Atlanta.

Roddey was working full-time while attending Winthrop master’s classes at night and raising her family. Becoming “Winthrop’s first,” she said, wasn’t really her intent.

Looking back, she said, “Yes, I opened some doors but it was such a minute part of the whole scope of the civil rights movement.”

Winthrop was the third public college in South Carolina to integrate. The University of South Carolina and Clemson University accepted black students before Winthrop but only after those two schools were forced to integrate following legal challenges to their enrollment practices.

Integrated but still isolated

Roddey and Winthrop’s first three black undergraduate students are considered pioneers in the school’s history. This week’s 50th anniversary activities will pay special tribute to Roddey and fellow students Delores Johnson Hurt, Arnetta Gladden and Sue Frances Meriwether Steed.

Hurt and Gladden were roommates in the fall of 1964 when they enrolled as Winthrop’s first black students to live on campus. Winthrop’s student body had nearly 3,000 women at the time.

Gladden, who died in 2009, was from Rock Hill. Hurt came to Winthrop from Columbia and had recently returned to the South after living with her parents in France, where her dad was stationed in the military.

Meriwether Steed was a transfer student from Tennessee. In 1967, she became the first black student to earn a Winthrop degree. She now lives in Mt. Pleasant.

The women enrolled at Winthrop at a time when there were two separate societies in South Carolina, Hurt said. Though their presence technically integrated the campus, Hurt recalls there being a “chill” around Winthrop and limited interaction between the white and black students.

“It was an experience of isolation We socialized among ourselves.”

Hurt, 68, a retired teacher and radio journalist, now lives in Charlotte.

“I didn’t feel any overt racism,” she said, but she and Gladden were given a dorm on campus separate from Winthrop’s white students. Their dorm included a suite-style bathroom. They didn’t use the same showers or facilities as other students.

It seemed like a “calculated move” by Winthrop officials, she said, to house her and Gladden in a more isolated dorm that was typically reserved for older students because of its privacy. “We were cognizant of this.”

For Hurt, her return from living on a racially-integrated military base in France to a segregated and racist South was “culture shock.”

To cope, she turned to reading and burying herself in academics. At Winthrop, she was studious and hosted her own show on the campus’ radio station. Her application to Winthrop is noted in the school’s history as exceeding the school’s academic standards.

Roddey’s graduate school application to attend the college was also considered exceptional.

She says she’s often wondered why she was admitted to Winthrop as the first black student when many before her had tried. She, too, found integration on campus to be in-name-only when Winthrop’s first black students arrived.

“You were tolerated, but not (fully) integrated You were isolated,” Roddey said.

In her three years at Winthrop, Roddey remembers just two white women specifically talking with her on campus. One woman was the wife of a Methodist minister in York. The other was an unknown woman who cornered Roddey in a restroom, asking whether the NAACP was paying her Winthrop tuition.

Her family helped her pay for her education. Roddey said the woman who asked may have been a reporter.

During breaks between classes, Roddey would socialize with workers on Winthrop’s campus instead of students. She knew some of the black custodians and landscaping workers from the Rock Hill community.

The isolation from other students didn’t bother her at the time, Roddey said. A busy mother, church volunteer and teacher, Roddey said, “When was I going to think about if someone’s being nice to me – I couldn’t care less.”

Her only regret from her Winthrop years, she said, was not participating in her graduation ceremony.

Winthrop’s ‘firsts’ return to campus

After graduating, Roddey went on to earn a doctorate in ministry and co-owned a Christian education consulting firm based in Charlotte. She also began teaching liberal arts and classes at Clinton Junior College – now called Clinton College – of Rock Hill.

In the late 1970s, she became the first adviser for one of Winthrop’s earliest black sororities on campus.

But, her emotional connection to the university was limited, she says.

Unlike some other Winthrop alumni, Roddey didn’t return to campus much initially to participate in campus activities. The lack of social integration as a student and other factors may have been the reason she wasn’t initially more involved, she says.

Hurt also recalls not feeling connected to school as an alumnae until she was invited back in 1989 by Winthrop’s first black Board of Trustees member, Sheila McMillian. McMillian graduated from Winthrop in 1974. The school’s monthly multi-cultural student newspaper, the Roddey-McMillian Record, carries her and Roddey’s name.

In 2008, Hurt became more active in the Winthrop community. She spent time in the university’s library archives researching the years of integration on campus and her own involvement in the historical moment.

She realized, “Wow, I have a story to tell.”

Roddey also gradually became involved with her alma mater. Both women have occasionally returned for panel discussions and events highlighting their courage in the 1960s to attend an all-white female college.

“I realized I had cheated myself all these years – I could have known all these great people,” Roddey said.

On Thursday, Roddey and Hurt will share their stories during a special panel. Winthrop’s first black professional staff employees – Ellen Owens and Dorothy Barber – will also attend the event, called “A Conversation with Winthrop’s Firsts.”

Racism “is still very much alive” in many parts of the United States, Hurt said last week. She hopes the upcoming Winthrop integration events will open a discussion about racist attitudes that still oppress black people, she said.

The commemorative activities can also remind a younger generation that integration at Winthrop was part of a greater movement, she said. “These were revolutionary times for the country.”

Roddey – a teacher for more than 30 years – says “Fulfilling the Promise” will be a teaching moment for current Winthrop students and the Rock Hill community. For her and the other “Winthrop Firsts” it may also be a reflective time – a chance to come full-circle from the day they first stepped onto campus, she said.

In the 1960s, Roddey said, “I don’t think we realized what we did – I don’t think we realized the magnitude.”