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Panel discusses Winthrop University’s integration

As Winthrop University on Thursday honored the women who broke the campus’ race barrier nearly 50 years ago, the school’s first black student gave public thanks to the Rock Hill Police officer who provided a personal security detail for her in the mid-1960s.

Cynthia Roddey was 24 years old when she registered for classes and became Winthrop’s first black student. A mother of two young children at the time, Roddey enrolled in graduate-level courses at the all-white, women-only school, then called Winthrop College.

On her way to campus in July 1964, Roddey’s personal guard was Rock Hill Police Officer Melvin Roseboro, who had been hired by the city one year prior. He was the fourth black officer on the police force in Rock Hill.

That morning, Roseboro followed Roddey as she drove from her family home in Catawba to Winthrop’s campus on Oakland Avenue. At the time, black police officers were not allowed to arrest white people or ride in patrol cars, Roddey said. Roseboro’s typical beat was walking Rock Hill’s Main Street.

With Roddey’s arrival at Winthrop, the school’s integration happened peacefully – “without incident,” according to the school’s history. Authorities were on watch around campus though as Roseboro and Roddey drove in.

Roddey, 74, shared the story of her arrival and Roseboro’s service on Thursday at Winthrop during a special event commemorating the 50th anniversary of racial integration on campus. The university also hosted Delores Johnson Hurt, one of the school’s first black undergraduate students; and Ellen Owens and Dorothy Barber, Winthrop’s first black professional staff members.

Thursday’s afternoon panel discussion was one of the main activities during Winthrop’s ongoing “Fulfilling the Promise” event this week.

Winthrop student Jarvais Jackson attended the event saying he wanted to “pay respects to the people who paved the way for me.” Jackson, who is black, is Winthrop’s student body vice-president.

He said race relations in South Carolina still have a ways to go even with the progress made since the time Roddey and others integrated southern schools and colleges. Winthrop, Jackson said, is a place where it feels easy to cross social and race lines to form friendships.

But some other places feel as though there’s underlying racial discrimination, he said.

Some on Thursday’s panel voiced similar concerns.

While Winthrop is recognized for having a diverse student population and recording higher-than-average graduation rates among black students, Barber said the school needs more diversity among its top administrators.

Barber and Owens joined Winthrop’s staff in 1970. They are two of Winthrop’s longest-serving employees.

Through the years, “we’ve seen a lot of fads,” Owens said on Thursday. She’s also watched the campus improve and progress to be more inclusive of minority students and workers, she said.

Owens, a Chester native, started at Winthrop as a clerk typist after using a local employment agency to find a job. Since then, she’s received several promotions and is now a part-time library specialist. Barber has also held various positions and works part time as an executive support specialist.

Owens recalls a time at Winthrop when white professors were openly uncomfortable with her checking out books for them in the campus library, she said on Thursday. Gradually, she said, that changed.

While she’s been treated mostly fairly at Winthrop, Owens said race relations off-campus could be better. Discrimination may not be apparent and it is unlawful, she said, but it lingers in society.

“Things are underlying you don’t really see them, but you know that they’re there.”

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