Clemson University Feature Stories

Harvey Gantt stands on the steps of Sikes Hall on the day he entered Clemson University, Jan. 28, 1963. | Photo copyright by Cecil Williams

Doing the Right Thing

By Sandra Parker
Creative Services

As children with siblings, many of us were admonished by our parents to “do the right thing” and “set a good example.” For most of us, following that advice didn’t mean choosing to make groundbreaking decisions. But, for Harvey Gantt, those words were prophetic and resulted in decisions that would change Clemson University and South Carolina.

On January 28, 1963, Harvey B. Gantt took  a step onto Clemson’s campus that would stake his claim in history. But as a quiet young man who only wanted a great education at a great institution, Gantt’s battle to gain admission to Clemson during state-mandated segregation was a step of courage and commitment. It was one step in a lifetime of steps that would set a good example and provide inspiration for generations to come, even for a future president of the United States.

An early inspiration

In 1990, Gantt was in a tight race for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina. In Cambridge, Mass., 850 miles to the north, Harvard law students gathered for an election watch. One of those students, 29-year-old Barack Obama, proudly donned a T-shirt in support of Gantt. Gantt, a successful architect and two-term mayor of Charlotte, was the city’s first African-American in that leadership role. And although Gantt lost his Senate race, he provided an inspirational example for the students who would follow him, including Obama, who would become the 44th president of the United States. Today, Gantt takes pleasure in displaying the signed photo of Pres. Obama, inscribed with the message, “To Harvey, an early inspiration,” and signed, “Barack Obama.”

This past fall, Gantt returned to Clemson to give the keynote address at Convocation to mark the beginning of the University’s 50th anniversary of integration. Gantt talked with pride about the accomplishments of his classmates and how the members of the Class of 1965 had made a positive impact on their world. He challenged faculty and students to do the same. But he also talked about the importance of the relationships they would forge at Clemson. These are just a few stories of African-American students who followed in his footsteps in the decades since Gantt stepped on campus.

The lessons of diversity

By the time Frank L. Matthews ’71 came to Clemson in 1968 from a two-year branch campus in Sumter, there were approximately 35 African-American students on campus. In looking for ways to bond, this small community formed the Student League for Black Identity to enhance their college experience, support each other and respond to other needs. “There were no black role models on campus,” Matthews recalls. “No black faculty or administrators. We got to know people in the community who were kindhearted and wanted us to succeed. They acted as surrogate parents and mentors.”

Student League for Black Identity, 1975Despite some challenges during his college experience, Matthews said he learned lessons that have carried him through the rest of his life. “I learned to overcome obstacles, and I learned resilience,” he explains. “I made some lifelong friends, both black and white. Friendship comes in all shades.”

The co-founder of Cox, Matthews and Associates, an educational publishing and communications company, Matthews is publisher/editor-in-chief of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, considered the premier news source for information about access and opportunity for all in higher education.

Matthews went on to simultaneously earn his J.D. and MBA from the University of South Carolina in 1976. Affiliated with George Mason University for the past 29 years, he has taught in both the Law School and School of Business Administration. He was recently inducted into the Writers’ Hall of Fame for his contributions in publishing.

The power of friendship

Frank E. Wise was a three-sport standout athlete at Eau Claire High School in 1972, just a few years after Gantt had graduated from Clemson and three years after Craig Mobley had became the University’s first African-American student-athlete in 1969.

Clemson was on his short list because of the relationship Eau Claire faculty had with Clemson administrators. But Wise was a member of a large family, and staying close was a priority. Clemson won out for one simple reason. “I wanted my mother up there in the stands cheering me on,” Wise explains, “and she could do that if I came to Clemson.”

Unlike high school, Wise was unknown to his classmates at Clemson. But several factors helped smooth the waters. One was his teammate, Bennie Cunningham Jr., a local star athlete who had visited most of the same colleges as Wise and had played in the Shrine Bowl with him. Cunningham would introduce him to a friend who lived nearby, Rosemary Holland, which proved to be a turning point. The introduction led to a date and later to marriage.

“That proved to be a stable force in my transition to college,” Wise says with a laugh. “We just never saw any African-American women on East Campus.”

Wise also credits his relationship with administrators and faculty. “I had a great relationship with Dr. (R.C.) Edwards and Dr. Gordon Gray, dean of the School of Education. He had a genuine interest in African-American students and wanted them to be successful.”

Wise received his B.A. from Clemson in 1976 and his Master of City and Regional Planning in 1979. The first African-American city planner in Seneca, he later worked for the Health and Human Services Agency in Anderson. While he was in this position, Wise was diagnosed with leukemia. And during his low points, he came to realize the value of the friendships he’d made at Clemson.

“I can’t say enough about G.G. Galloway and staying with him in Florida after

my bone marrow transplant. He was also instrumental in pulling together the Clemson community. Contributions from the Clemson Family allowed us to focus on recovery rather than financial burdens.Those former student-athletes gave me hope. We don’t forget each other.”

All in the family

In 1978, with a stellar high school basketball career under her belt, Barbara Kennedy-Dixon ’85, M ’92 had several options for college. Clemson varsity athletics had just started for women in 1975. Kennedy-Dixon considered other schools, but after meeting coach Annie Tribble, the decision was easy. “The first time I spoke to her, it was like talking to my mother. She was so pleasant and personable. I didn’t know anything about Clemson, but I wanted to play for her.”

As a freshman, Kennedy-Dixon was one of three African-American women on the Lady Tigers team, which was a comfortable fit. “A family supports each person. I didn’t see anything different from my basketball family.” And part of her family experience was living in Clemson House, where permanent residents still occupied apartments on the top floors. “It was like having grandparents on campus,” she says.

In 1982, Clemson played in the first women’s NCAA basketball tournament; Kennedy-Dixon scored the first two points. She led the nation in scoring that season (1981-82) and was named a First-Team All-American by Kodak, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association and “Basketball Weekly.” Still the ACC’s record holder in career scoring, field goals made and rebounding, she’s listed in the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Records for season field goals and scoring average. She is the first woman to be inducted into the Clemson University Ring of Honor and Clemson’s Hall of Fame and the first Clemson woman inducted into the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame. Her Clemson jersey was retired at the end of her student-athlete career.

After playing in Italy for a couple of years, Kennedy-Dixon returned to Clemson as an assistant basketball coach, and she has remained enthusiastic about her Clemson home.

“Sometimes students see Clemson as a rural institution. But I tell them to focus on the people. There is a unique, strong family bond here. Once a Tiger, always a Tiger.”

Musical Tigers

By the time Eric Foster ’85 and Lisa Johnson Foster ’84, MBA ’95 came to Clemson in 1980, there was a small but growing number of African-American students. The first African-American drum major for the marching band at nearby Seneca High, Eric had attended Clemson’s Career Workshop program to recruit academically talented African-American students into engineering majors. Lisa had graduated from Lugoff-Elgin High School and already had a brother attending Clemson.

Both describe Tiger Band as an important part of their Clemson experience. By senior year, Eric had been selected to lead the band as drum major. Although not the first African-American to hold that position, he was the first student to simultaneously hold the position of band commander and  drum major.

Lisa, now a disability examiner with the state of South Carolina, and Eric, an engineer with Square D-Schneider Electric in Seneca, say the best outcome from their Clemson days was meeting each other. Lisa says with a smile, “The best part of attending Clemson was finding the person with whom I would spend the rest of my life.”

Fifty years later

Harvey Gantt’s admission into Clemson opened the doors that led to the University that exists today. Clemson now has students of every race (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau). There are students from almost every state in the U.S. (49), as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And more than 90 countries are represented in the Clemson Family.

Fifty years later, a grateful University community commemorates Harvey Gantt’s courage and determination to do the right thing and set a truly good example.

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