Desegregation at the College of Charleston

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2021 class of the 1967 Legacy Program, circa 2021.

(Top) Yearbook photos of some of the earliest enrolled Black students at the College of Charleston, attending from 1968 to 1972, courtesy of College of Charleston Libraries. (Bottom) Members of the first class of the 1967 Legacy Program, circa 2021, courtesy of College of Charleston's College Today.

Once Brown overturned legal segregation in 1954, it took the College of Charleston over a decade—thirteen years—to intentionally desegregate. It lagged behind most southern higher education institutions in complying with federal requirements to end segregation. Former president Grice and the Board of Trustees’ decisions to serve as a segregationist holdout in the 1950s and 1960s had historic repercussions, the detrimental effect of which are felt in the twenty-first century. Since the mid-twentieth century, many of the College’s faculty, staff, and students have been working to overcome those reverberations—and their challenge is great.

The College of Charleston has several fronts on which they need to defeat historically rooted race-based challenges. First, they are battling reputation. Generations of local African American families are aware of the College’s sordid history of racial discrimination, resulting in a community lore that does little to promote the College within the Black community. This viewpoint of the College is only confirmed when today’s Black students, many of whom are recruited, choose to enroll at the College and then experience discriminatory behaviors—blatant and subtle—from faculty, staff, and students. The second front is isolation. Because the College of Charleston’s enrollment of Black students and hiring of Black faculty is low, Black students can go an entire semester as the only Black student in their classes or without being taught by a Black faculty member. There are some programs of study in which a student could never be taught by Black faculty. Thus, reputation and isolation create a cycle that has proven hard to break. A third front is the availability of scholarships. Though the College has made significant strides in providing both merit and need-based scholarships for Black students, other institutions are also making this a priority, sometimes offering more compelling financial packages. While there are programs, initiatives, and offices on campus that strive to nurture Black students, these important efforts leave ample room for the institution to grow.

Demographic data of enrolled undergraduates at the College of Charleston from 1998-2022, data taken from the Office of Institutional Research Annual Common Data Set Report, created by Paige Little and Brenna Reilley.

Demographic data of enrolled undergraduates at the College of Charleston from 1998-2022, data taken from the Office of Institutional Research Annual Common Data Set Report, created by Paige Little and Brenna Reilley.

Reckoning with the painful past requires ongoing acknowledgment and work. One of the strengths of the College of Charleston in the twenty-first century is that it acknowledges the need to improve racial diversity and inclusion. It has begun the work of creating a more inviting and engaging campus environment, leading to programs and initiatives intentionally aimed at increasing the number of Black and Brown students and employees. Another important change on campus is that racial diversity and inclusion work is no longer contained in one or two offices but, instead, has permeated campus. In the Fall of 2019, for example, incoming freshmen saw Diversity Education modules incorporated into their first-year experience. In 2020, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) became a cross-cutting theme of the campus’ 2020-2030 strategic plan, Tradition & Transformation. Two years later, in 2022, the Faculty Senate adopted a Race, Equity, and Inclusion curriculum requirement for all College of Charleston students. And in 2023, the College established the Lucille Simmons Whipper Distinguished Professorship, honoring Whipper’s legacy by creating a professorship designed to attract and retain faculty members of color.

These efforts and more are required for a diverse and inclusive campus, an integrated campus. The first Black students to desegregate the College of Charleston broke the color line—a courageous and challenging choice that paved the way for thousands of Black students since then to attend, enrich, and be enriched by the College of Charleston’s campus. Desegregation, though, was court ordered. Integration is a decision that is made not once but repeatedly and systemically. It requires intentional planning and action—from policies and budgeting to recruiting and mentorship. Every semester the College has choices to make and work to do toward the goal of being a fully inclusive and integrated campus.