Soulful music filled the historic, cavernous space of Rutledge Chapel on Oct. 7, 2023, the powerful voices of A Touch of Gospel Choir almost seeming to rattle the pews themselves. The number of people remaining seated during the performance became smaller and smaller, the jubilance and energy of the chorus infectious. The Henry Hayne Day event itself oscillated between lively celebration and more complicated, solemn emotion as attendees digested the true meaning of the day and the words of the four accomplished panelists present.
When Henry Hayne enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine in 1873, he became the first African American student to enroll in the University of South Carolina, beginning a period of integration for the university which would continue until 1877. Through his admission, the university thereby became the only Southern state university to grant degrees to Black students during Reconstruction. Hayne’s path is one which illustrates the great achievements of Black Americans during the Reconstruction period: he worked for both the Freedmen’s Bureau and the South Carolina Land Commission following the Civil War, and eventually became a state senator for Marion County and South Carolina’s secretary of state. Despite his importance to the history of South Carolina and the nation, not much is known of Henry Hayne after 1877, and many students at the university today do not recognize his name.
In the panel, Caley Bright, a USC senior and president of the NAACP on campus, pointed out this omission from the narrative of the university’s history.
“Students don’t always recognize Henry Hayne’s name,” Bright said. “We don’t learn that on our first day of school here. I teach a University 101 course and I’ve never seen his name in our curriculum. It just makes you think that you don’t know where you came from. I’ve had a lot of opportunities here and it’s because of Henry Hayne and people like him.”
In addition to the panel, there was also a preview screening for a new documentary entitled “Radical Carolina,” which details the role the University of South Carolina played in the Reconstruction era. Once completed, it will likely air on South Carolina Educational Television, where filmmaker Betsy Newman works as a producer. This screening brought up questions about what the Reconstruction period means for the state, the university and the challenges Black Americans face in current society.
Newman, creator and producer of “Radical Carolina,” discussed the importance of South Carolina to the Reconstruction period and the purpose of her film.
“[Reconstruction] was just a period of such conflicting things: this great hopefulness and, as we know, violent reaction to it,” Newman said. “So, I think that it is terribly important for all of us — white people, maybe especially, but white and black [people] — to know this history, to know what’s possible, to know what almost happened here in our country and really came to its greatest fruition right here in South Carolina and here at the University of South Carolina.”
Carl Solomon, USC alumni and son of James Solomon, who was one of three students who re-integrated the university in 1963, had conflicting feelings after viewing the clip of “Radical Carolina."
“It’s mixed emotions. Some of it is invigorating in the sense that we should get up and do more today because the job is not done,” Solomon said. “Some of it is kind of a sadness of all the missed opportunities our state has had to be so great.”
He also emphasized the importance of understanding and teaching Reconstruction history in preventing a repetition of past misdeeds.
“We must understand that if we’re not going to repeat horrible things, we need to at least know they existed so we can do better,” Solomon said.
In an effort to acknowledge the Black history entwined with its own past, the University of South Carolina unveiled a statue of Richard T. Greener, Harvard’s first Black graduate and former professor at USC, in 2018. In September 2023, plans for a statue of the three students who integrated the school in 1963 were revealed. There have also been several historical markers placed around campus that discuss the contributions and achievements of Black people at the university. Lyric Swinton, a USC alumna and current graduate student, commented on the mixed signals the university has given in its mission to physically commemorate the contributions of Black Americans on campus.
“I think that monuments and markers are a physical representation of what your values are as an institution. We’re starting to see them, but there’s a conflicting message. We have Strom Thurmond Wellness Center directly across from Celia Saxon Hall — two people who stood for things completely opposite of each other," Swinton said. "I think that statues are great, monuments are great, but the action that goes with them has to be just as powerful, if not more."
For context, Strom Thurmond was a U.S. senator and former South Carolina governor well known for his segregationist policy and ideology, notably filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours. Celia Saxon was a formerly enslaved woman who became a dedicated teacher in the Columbia area, helping found the Fairwold Industrial School for Negro Girls and the Wilkinson Orphanage for Negro Children. Strom Thurmond Wellness Center is located on land formerly occupied by the Celia Saxon School, an all-Black elementary school.
Despite the varying success in the institutional acknowledgment of Reconstruction accomplishments, Solomon spoke of the achievements made by Black Americans during Reconstruction as a testament to their power to stimulate change — a power which he hopes people will continue to harness in the present day.
“When I look at the legacy of Reconstruction, the parallels to today, I say to all folks that if you believe in good and right, and you choose to have a great country not just for yourself but for your children and grandchildren, then you’ve got to take up these fights related to ballot boxes and politics and economic equality,” Solomon said.
This spirit is reflected through student activism, in which both Bright and Swinton have been active participants. Students at the university have and will continue to use diplomacy and protest, as they to make the University of South Carolina a more equitable place. Bright's motivation and commitment to activism stems from the desire to better the lives of future generations.
“I want my little brother to be able to come here, my soon-to-be-born nephew to be able to come here,” Bright said. “I think when they see that Black students at the university have a place here, that it’s not just a diversity number or something cute on a poster, but we actually have a spot in this university, that is what will continue to light my fire as I graduate and become an alum."