Breaking Down the Walls
N o one was surprised when Dr. Marcus Cox’s Ph.D. in history from Northwestern led to job offers from Ohio State and Illinois State universities. But it came as quite a surprise to his friends when Cox passed on those schools to go to The Citadel — a small Southern military college known outside its home region mostly for spending a reported $15 million to fight the admission of women to the cadet corps.
Cox’s explanation is elegant in its simplicity: “I wanted to make an impact, and what better place than The Citadel?” he says. It was the smallest school of the three that made him an offer, with the smallest number of African American students and the smallest Black faculty. “In most cases, they had never even offered the courses I would be teaching.”
Plus, says Cox, a Louisiana native who did his undergraduate work at Southern University, “I wanted a warm climate. Coming from Louisiana and then living in Evanston (Ill.), I really liked the weather in Charleston.”
Cox is heading into his fourth year at The Citadel, and the young assistant professor is winning kudos not just from students, but also from colleagues, alumni and the broader community, for crafting, with his department’s full support, an African American studies minor. The first in the school’s 162-year history, it kicks off this fall.
“This is being called a significant change, and it is,” says Dr. Winfred B. “Bo” Moore, chairman of the history department and an enthusiastic supporter of the program.
“It’s obviously been a need the college has had — the community also. And it’s a need, for a variety of reasons, not all of them good, we have been slow to try to meet. But in recent years, we’ve been very fortunate in hiring people whose specialty lies in various disciplines of the African American experience. The group is not large, but it’s a viable beginning. We have the critical mass to begin making a difference,” Moore says.
Of course, some might say there’s nothing much new in the school’s initiative. African American studies has, over its more than 30-year history, grown into one of the more noteworthy success stories of modern higher education. It’s literally everywhere, and the institution that doesn’t offer a minor or a program risks being seen as out of step with the mainstream.
But that’s precisely the point, observers say. For much of its history, The Citadel — and the city where it was born, Charleston, S.C., — has loudly and proudly followed the beat of a different drummer. To say that Confederate identity has historically been strong at the school is something of an understatement. The Citadel was founded in response to the Denmark Vessey slave rebellion. And for most of its history, the walls of the campus have seemed well-nigh unapproachable to the African American communities that lived within their shadow.
“The college was, for many years, quite insular — and quite happy in its insularity,” says Moore, adding, “That’s not been a good thing.”
Norma Hoffman Davis, 63, grew up near the campus as the daughter of a Charleston physician. Her assessment is more blunt: “It had a reputation for being a racist place,” she says, and it was a reputation the school worked to live up to. Once, she recalls, she and her brother and cousin dared to ride their bikes within The Citadel’s walls. “The cadets shot at us with BB guns,” she says.
Bernard Fielding, 71, a retired probate judge whose family runs one of the oldest African American-owned funeral homes in the city, says he never rode his bike through the campus as a child. He didn’t dare.
Indeed, on the few occasions that he took visiting family members to see “the West Point of the South,” he laughs, “I was never on foot or on a bicycle. I was in my automobile — with the windows rolled up.”
Such stories ring true to Dr. Larry Ferguson, the oldest living African American graduate of The Citadel. Ferguson, 52, and a member of the first Citadel class to include more than one African American student, vividly recalls the cries of doom that greeted the young Black men who integrated the school.
“We heard stories that the school would never be the same, that it was going to crumble, go down to nothing,” he says. “We were not exactly welcomed.”
Ferguson recalls his fellow integration pioneers — Charles Foster, the first to enroll, in 1966; Joseph Shine, who enrolled in 1967; Eddie Addison, who enrolled in 1968; the four young men who enrolled with him in 1969: Albert Dillings, Herbert Legare, George Heyward and Arnold Benson.
The pressure the young men faced was intense. Foster finished in 1970, but died tragically in a 1986 house fire without having ever lived up to his early promise. “He was so ostracized and suffered so much — he never could overcome the tremendous mental anguish he went through,” Ferguson says.
Shine went to Harvard Law School after graduating and became a noted attorney, Ferguson continues. But Addison succumbed to the pressure and dropped out. As for Ferguson, a gifted clarinetist, he sparked a perfect storm on campus by refusing to play “Dixie” during football games.
The band director lamented, “‘You’ll crucify yourself,'” Ferguson remembers, and it proved all too true. “I got eggs thrown at me, people booing, yelling, fussing at me,” Ferguson says. The president of the school vowed to yank Ferguson’s academic scholarship, though he backed down after a local attorney threatened to take the case to the courts — and the press. Eventually, Ferguson was kicked out of the band and, because of fears for his safety, moved into a company with an African American major and a Black roommate. Even so, his room was vandalized, and a black ball was left hanging over the bed with the warning: “If you don’t leave, nigger, this will happen to you.”
“We made it anyway,” says Ferguson. Indeed, at the height of the controversy he and Shine founded the Afro-American Society. Eventually, Ferguson was named “Man of the Year” by his alma mater in 1983 and served on the board of visitors from 1985 to 1992.
Still active in the affairs of the school, Ferguson is a strong supporter of Cox. “He’s blazing a new trail and it’s not without some challenges,” Ferguson says. But in many ways, Cox seems to have arrived at The Citadel at precisely the right time.
The history department was ready, says Moore. “We’ve had a lot of retirements, so the kind of generational fissure lines” that might have put the brakes on new initiatives were not a significant factor. “The department has regenerated itself — I’d say three-fourths of the faculty were hired in the last few years,” Moore adds, “and they’re all quite enthusiastic” about the African American studies minor.
At the same time, the institution itself was ready. In the wake of controversies in the media and the courts over the admission of women, The Citadel finally woke up to the need for sensitivity on issues of human dignity and diverse cultures, notes Maj. Robert Pickering, director of multicultural affairs for the school.
“I think the climate is definitely a lot better than it was when I came through,” says Pickering, a Black Charlestonian and Citadel grad. He graduated in 1994, the year Shannon Faulkner made her ill-fated attempt to invade the all-male sanctum of the cadet corps.
Lastly, but probably most importantly, the students were ready. Knowing that his department “had never offered two African American classes in the same semester before I arrived,” Cox aggressively promoted his classes that first semester.
“I put up flyers; I talked to students; I visited the athletic department,” Cox explains. And the efforts paid off. Both his classes were full that first semester, and they’ve remained full ever since.
Cox says eventually he’s hoping to attract 30 to 40 students to the program.
Says Moore, “This is all relatively new so we don’t yet have an extensive database. But the students come by and comment on classes since I’m chair, and I, of course, get the student evaluations. And there’s a very, very positive reaction to the courses we’re offering.
“They’re starved for discussion about these issues, and they’re experiencing that initial exuberance that comes with finding a place to learn about things they’ve always been curious about. And if there’s is one thing that Marc is truly gifted at, it’s directing classroom discussion. The students always comment on that ability to participate,” Moore adds.
Cox’s success may be all the more remarkable because most of his students are White. Only 180 of 2,099 students at The Citadel are African American. So while Cox might see “one or two White females, the same number of Black females, maybe four or five Black males” per class, the vast majority of his students are White males.
“They’re from rural areas in South Carolina, ultraconservative backgrounds, with very little contact with minorities. In fact, I may be the first African American teacher they’ve ever had. So everything — the course, the material we’re reading, me — is a new experience for them,” Cox explains.
And while Cox appears to have the ability to make that experience vivid for the students and to open their minds to new ways of thinking, he says even that would feel incomplete if he could not use the classroom experience to create a link between The Citadel and the community.
That’s why his 15-hour minor includes an outreach component — consisting of lectures, conferences and workshops aimed at breaking down the walls that separate The Citadel from the African American community.
Davis and Fielding say the thing that convinced them that a new day had dawned was a conference held in the spring of 2003. Called “The Citadel Conference on Civil Rights in South Carolina,” it brought in both “stars” and foot soldiers in the movement, plus scholars from top universities, to lecture on South Carolina’s role in the Brown v. Board of Education case, on White violence, voting rights, desegregation at South Carolina universities and more.
For Davis, who had chosen to retire in South Carolina after a long sojourn in Michigan, it was the first time she’d set foot on the campus since being shot at so many years ago. She says she and her husband, Dr. Leonard Davis, born near Charleston, experienced the event as a homecoming.
“There are lots of issues still, but I think people are trying. That’s one thing,” Davis says. “And the other thing I felt was, you know, this is a beautiful city — it’s our city. And now, finally, we feel like it belongs to us and we can really enjoy it.”
Fielding says he found it “astounding to see those major civil rights speakers from all over the United States — I just couldn’t believe it.
“I come from a family that’s old, but that has also stood for things in this city. And after 46 years as a lawyer in this city, I don’t mind telling you that I am very, very pleased that this young man would have the audacity to try to convert these people — and that he’s getting away with it! I admire him very, very greatly,” he says.
Moore promises that Cox’s efforts are only the beginning. “I’m not sure most people are sufficiently aware of this, but I can’t think of anywhere in the country that has a richer African American heritage than Low Country South Carolina,” he says, explaining there are unparalleled opportunities for archival work, for oral histories and for studies of South Carolina’s key role in the civil rights movement. “These are the areas we want to build on,” Moore explains.
“The walls of The Citadel are historically pretty damned intimidating. We’re hoping, at least metaphorically, to bring the walls down,” Moore says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com