The Avery Normal Institute educated Black Charlestonians in professional careers and leadership roles for nearly one hundred years, from its founding in 1865 to its closure in 1954. In the 1940s, their students and alumni became central to the fight for access to higher education. In 1943, a recent graduate of the Avery Normal Institute and president of the NAACP Youth Council, John Wrighten, sent a letter to the College of Charleston to request information about applying for admission. The acting president of the College, George Grice, forwarded Wrighten’s letter to the Board of Trustees but never responded to Wrighten’s request to become the first African American student at the College.
The following year, thirty-two Avery students from the Class of 1944 joined Wrighten in applying to the College. These Avery seniors, enrolled in Julia Brogdon’s “Problems in Democracy” social science course, decided to challenge the discriminatory policies of the College and the deeply entrenched racism in their hometown through a letter-writing campaign. All thirty-three participants, including Wrighten, were denied admission. This time Charleston’s News and Courier took note of the student organizers in an article titled “33 Negroes Seek Admission to College Here.” With the threat of future local and national challenges to the College’s segregation policy, the President and Board of Trustees felt compelled to act. Hoping to discourage subsequent applications from African Americans, the city of Charleston funded six scholarships to South Carolina State College, a historically Black college in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
As the College fought to discourage Black students from applying for admission, Wrighten continued his efforts to desegregate higher education in South Carolina. Two years later in 1946, after being denied admission to the University of South Carolina Law school, the only law school in the state, Wrighten filed a lawsuit (Wrighten v. The Boards of Trustees 1947). Judge J. Waties Waring ruled that the school had to admit Wrighten or establish a separate law school for Black students. As a strategy to prevent desegregation, the state of South Carolina provided over $200,000 to South Carolina State College to establish a law school for Black students. The state's decision to pay to keep segregation in place was a bellwether of decisions to come at the College of Charleston.