The institution was founded in 1896 in Orangeburg as the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina. It was and remains, as of the early twenty-first century, the only state-assisted, historically black, land-grant institution in South Carolina. In 1872 the General Assembly had established the South Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) Institute under the provisions of the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act. For twenty-four years the A&M school was attached to Claflin University, a Methodist institution. Following the separation from Claflin, the new school was supported in part by funds provided by the 1890 Morrill Land-Grant Act.
When the first students and faculty arrived in 1896, the campus was a sparse and unattractive place. The main building, Morrill Hall, was still under construction. There were no paved roads, no running water, and no electricity. During its early years the college was devoted to training black youngsters to be teachers, farmers, homemakers, and skilled artisans. The institution offered instruction in subjects such as poultry science, carpentry, harness making, cheese making, and sewing as well as academic courses including literature, history, and Latin. Most students were enrolled in primary and secondary grades. Few students earned college degrees. All students were required to work. Some were employed on the campus farm, and others worked in the laundry or the dining hall. Many of the early campus buildings were constructed by students under the supervision of faculty.
Thomas E. Miller, the first president of the college, was a lawyer, state legislator, and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Under Miller’s leadership the college grew steadily despite considerable adversity and hostility to its existence. Among its earliest graduates were the acclaimed research biologist Ernest E. Just and Benjamin E. Mays, who later became president of Morehouse College and a mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
From its inception the institution offered advice and instruction to rural black families through farmers’ institutes held on campus and in off-campus programs supervised by the Cooperative Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 1929 the college had twenty black agents—twelve men and eight women— providing information on crop management, livestock production, insect eradication, canning fruits and vegetables, sewing, and health.
In the 1920s the number of college students increased, while the numbers enrolled in primary and secondary grades decreased. In 1933 the campus high school closed. The Great Depression caused severe hardship on faculty and staff as salaries were slashed and employees sometimes went without pay. New Deal programs combined with private philanthropy helped alleviate some of the worst effects of the economic crisis. Presidents Robert Shaw Wilkinson and Miller F. Whittaker were able to secure federal funds through such agencies as the Works Projects Administration and the National Youth Administration (in which the black leader Mary McLeod Bethune played a pivotal role) to keep the college functioning. The Rosenwald Foundation and the General Education Board (which was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation) provided funds to assist in teacher training, to support faculty enrolled in graduate schools, and in constructing the first separate library building, Wilkinson Hall.
The 1940s and 1950s brought dramatic changes to the campus. The college purchased 153 acres of land about two miles from the campus for additional space for farming and livestock. With World War II, large numbers of male students were drafted or enlisted. Following the conflict, veterans flocked to the college, determined to get an education under the G.I. Bill of Rights. The college lacked sufficient classroom and dormitory space to house the flood of students. In 1947 the U.S. Army established a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps detachment, and participation was mandatory for male students until 1969. The military science program became a major source of black military officers.
In 1946 the U.S. Army Air Corps veteran and South Carolina State student John Wrighten was denied admission to the University of South Carolina Law School because of his race. With the assistance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its legal counsel Thurgood Marshall, Wrighten sued for admission. As a consequence of federal district judge J. Waties Waring’s decision the following year, the General Assembly hastily created a graduate program and a law school at South Carolina State rather than admit black students to the state’s white institutions. Among the graduates of the law school were federal judge Matthew Perry and South Carolina Supreme Court chief justice Ernest Finney. The school was closed in 1966 after the University of South Carolina Law School began to admit black students.
The legislature increased appropriations to South Carolina State in the 1950s in an attempt to create facilities “equal” to those at the state’s white institutions and thereby preserve a segregated system of higher education. With additional financial assistance from the General Education Board, new classrooms, dormitories, and a student center were added and other improvements were made to the campus. In 1954 the name was legally changed to South Carolina State College. The institution was fully accredited for the first time in 1960.
South Carolina State students played a key role in the sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations that marked the early 1960s. Hundreds of students were teargassed, fire-hosed, and/or arrested during the protests against segregation. On February 8, 1968, in what has become known as the Orangeburg Massacre, three young men— Henry Smith, Delano Middleton, and Samuel Hammond—were shot and killed by highway patrolmen on the campus. The twenty-seven who were injured were among the students who had been protesting for several days over the persistence of segregation in Orangeburg, particularly at the All-Star Bowling Lanes.
During the last three decades of the twentieth century, the campus population became more diverse with a gradual increase in the number of white and international students and faculty. The program in agriculture was eliminated in 1971, and the campus farm was transformed into a city recreation facility for golf, tennis, and baseball. As of the early twenty-first century, however, the institution maintained its land-grant mission and received federal funds for research and extension projects. It has developed programs in agribusiness, speech pathology and audiology, and criminal justice, among others. There are also graduate programs leading to master’s degrees, an educational specialist degree, and a doctorate in educational administration. The institution has added a museum and planetarium, dormitories, classroom buildings, and a campus plaza. In 1992 the legislature designated South Carolina State a university.
Hine, William C. “Civil Rights and Campus Wrongs: South Carolina State College Students Protest, 1955–1968.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 97 (October 1996): 310–31.
———. “South Carolina State College: A Legacy of Education and Public Service.” Agricultural History 65 (spring 1991): 149–67.
Potts, John F. A History of South Carolina State College. Orangeburg: South Carolina State College, 1978.