A 1968 protest ended with three young black men killed. Can history lessons help the town recover?
February 8, 2017
In 1968, the town of Orangeburg, South Carolina was home to two historically black colleges and more than 13,000 people. It had one bowling alley, open to whites only. One night in early February, a few dozen black college students went to the All-Star Triangle Bowl to call for integration. When they returned for a second night of protests, there were confrontations, police made 15 arrests, and the governor called in the National Guard.
The next night, February 8, about 150 students gathered around a bonfire on the edge of historically black South Carolina State College. The night was cold. Highway patrolmen stood nearby, rifles at the ready. Firefighters were called in to extinguish the rising flames. An investigation would later show that no one in the college crowd was armed, but an officer may have been hit in the head by a bannister thrown from a building. Soon afterward, the patrolmen opened fire. Some 28 black students were shot and wounded.
Three young men—19-year-old Henry Smith, 18-year-old Samuel Hammond, Jr., and Delano Middleton, a 17-year-old high school student—were killed.
Nine officers were charged with using excessive force. None was convicted. But Cleveland Sellers, a civil rights activist who had grown up nearby and attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., was cast as an “outside agitator” and convicted of inciting a riot. He served almost a year in prison (he was pardoned 23 years later).
Possibly because immediate news accounts got the story wrong (Governor Robert McNair asserted and the Associated Press initially reported an exchange of gunfire between students and police), the Orangeburg Massacre, as it came to be called, received nowhere near the national attention as the shootings two years later at Kent State. Nothing was captured on film and photos are scarce. Until recently, it was largely omitted from the canon of civil rights history.
Julia-Louise Doe (South Carolina ’14) is a fourth grade teacher at Orangeburg’s Marshall Elementary School. She is black, like almost all of her students. And she is a proud South Carolinian, growing up in both Columbia, the capital, and Beaufort, on the coast.
Doe loves that wherever she goes in the state, she’s never too far from trees. And even the cities’ tallest buildings aren’t too high to crowd out the sky. A tall, broad-shouldered woman, she loves breathing the air that her ancestors breathed, enjoying the freedom that many of them could only imagine. “Despite the pain of the past, I can feel that this is my home,” she says. “If I go outside barefoot, there are stories in that dirt. There’s a strength there for my people.”
She also loves teaching, and compares it to her father’s profession of preaching. “When you’re teaching in a way that empowers your kids,” she says, “it in turn starts to empower you.”
But in the wake of recent events—after activists focused attention on police shootings of unarmed black people; after a white supremacist shot to death nine black parishioners in nearby Charleston; after white supremacists asserted themselves in a presidential election and backed the winning candidate – she feels compelled to ensure her students learn the American history that she never did.
Doe’s uncle was a college roommate of Henry Smith, one of the students killed in 1968. And yet it wasn’t until Doe herself was in college that she learned about the Orangeburg Massacre.
But while she is firm in her intention to teach students in a way that empowers them to stand up for justice, her task is complicated by the pall that the shootings still cast over the town. “It shows up more in silence than anything else,” Doe says. “The fact that most students have never heard about the Orangeburg Massacre speaks volumes.”
Today, Orangeburg shares much in common with many small Southern towns surrounded by even smaller towns, farmland, and forest. Black residents comprise a 75 percent majority—they’ve outnumbered whites since the slavery era. But whites still hold much of the wealth, despite a strong black middle class of professionals employed by South Carolina State University (formerly College) and neighboring, historically black Claflin University. About 1 in 5 of Orangeburg’s 14,000 residents is both poor and black, compared to 1 in 50 who is poor and white. In the historic downtown, a 33-foot tall granite monument honoring the town’s Confederate dead casts a shadow over the central square. Nearby, handmade signs staked in the grass advertise local restaurants and a new tea and spice shop as part of a recent effort to revive the neighborhood.
Bill Hine was a first year history instructor at State College when the shootings occurred. He says local attitudes in the aftermath split the town largely along racial lines, leaving little room for reconciliation. Black residents saw the shootings as “out and out police overreaction, cold-blooded killings,” Hine says. But white residents saw “a sturdy law enforcement detail protecting the community from these rampaging militant students who would’ve incinerated Orangeburg and destroyed the community.”
In 2005, South Carolina included the event in its social studies standards. Prior to that, it wasn’t required to be taught. “You can’t quite say the memory was lost,” says Hine. “For many people, there was no memory of it to begin with.” The silence crosses racial lines, Hine says. “That’s part of the legacy of the massacre. People didn’t talk about it, not even to family members… It was extremely painful. Some people won’t come back to the campus, even after all these years.”
Julia-Louise Doe’s demeanor is friendly and gregarious, but she turns serious on a dime when she tries to explain how, even half a century later, the event feels like a chokehold on real conversations about racism and social change. Fear lingers, and people shy away from the pain. “The soul here was tainted after the Orangeburg Massacre,” she says.
At Marshall Elementary, Doe returned at the end of her winter break and kicked off 2017 by mounting a display in her fourth-grade classroom titled “Black History is American History.” She spends some time each day teaching her students how the history of black Americans and their ancestors has often been ignored. When they express bewilderment, she has a ready response: “I’m expecting you to grow up and fix it,” Doe tells them.
This past January, she assigned each student a living black leader, from Barack and Michelle Obama to artists like Savion Glover and Lauryn Hill. Throughout the month, students researched their subjects and made connections with past leaders who helped pave the way: the Nicholas Brothers tap danced before Glover; Nina Simone was a famous singer before Hill, and suffered for her activism.
Local hero Bakari Sellers is on the list, too. Before he became a representative in the South Carolina Legislature and an analyst on CNN, Sellers grew up just outside of Orangeburg. His father is Cleveland Sellers, the only person convicted of a crime in the wake of the shootings.
Doe knows that teaching local black history to fourth graders may not seem revolutionary in many cities. But Orangeburg, like many small towns in rural regions, has a more fraught relationship with its past.
Every February 8 since 1969, there has been an event at SCSU to commemorate the Orangeburg Massacre. And every year, there is blowback, says Hine, who has helped organize many of the memorials. “A lot of people—not vicious people—ask why we can’t just let this go. They ask why we keep picking this scab and reopening this wound.”
“Despite the pain of the past, I can feel that this is my home. If I go outside barefoot, there are stories in that dirt. There’s a strength there for my people.”
Vanity Jenkins (Mississippi ’10), who oversees teacher coaches for Teach For America in South Carolina, was Doe’s coach when Doe was a corps member. Jenkins grew up in New Jersey but has strong family ties to Orangeburg. Her mother was born there, she frequently visits her grandmother there, and her uncle is one of Doe’s colleagues at Marshall Elementary.
Doe gives her hope because “she has an unyielding love for black people and black children,” Jenkins says. “It’s revolutionary to love blackness in America.” Still, Jenkins understands the challenge for a relatively new teacher like Doe, who expends significant time and energy to teach history through a lens of liberation. Doe isn’t alone—she exchanges ideas and inspiration with friends from the corps and other teachers at Marshall. But if Jenkins can cultivate other corps members like her, with ties to the state and a passion for teaching students their history and culture, the efforts could take off.
The region, one of Teach For America’s newest, is taking steps. Beginning last year, all South Carolina corps members attended a workshop put on by the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute, which trains leaders and organizations to address racism in their work and communities. Jenkins helped open the training to Teach For America’s community partners, as well.
Looking ahead, Jenkins and the regional team are building toward a broader collective to surround teachers like Doe. They are working to build a pipeline for corps members and alumni to become principals and leaders within their schools, which is something Doe intends to do. The region recently secured money to reimburse a portion of graduate school expenses for alumni who become principals and stay in South Carolina.
Doe is planning to introduce a history unit this month that begins with Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was beaten and murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. She’ll work up to the Orangeburg Massacre and events of the present, including the shooting death of Walter Scott by a Charleston police officer. She is considering how to help students place their struggles into an international context, perhaps by reading about “secret schools” in Afghanistan where young girls risk their lives for the opportunity to learn. Her hope is to channel their emotion into a conviction that they can work toward tangible progress for their community.
She knows that her challenge is to present the material carefully not only for her fourth graders but also for their families and her colleagues—many of whom lived in Orangeburg in 1968. “I don’t want to be fired,” Doe says, only half joking.
She is buoyed in her efforts by a more recent event in the state’s history. In July 2015, Doe watched the Confederate flag removed from the grounds of the state capitol by members of the highway patrol—the same agency that fired on students in Orangeburg. She couldn’t help but think about her own students and the road trod by those who came before them. She herself had traveled to the capitol to protest the flag every year since college. And every year people, including her dad, warned her it would never fall.
But they were wrong. “Within us there is a sense of hope that what we’re doing will lead to change,” Doe says. “People are coming to accept that some things are just unacceptable.”
Orangeburg's Next Generation
Growing up in Orangeburg, LaShonda Riley (South Carolina ’16) knew not to ask her mother to go to the town’s one bowling alley, but she didn’t know why. It didn’t bother her much. She was a quiet kid, happy to spend a Saturday at home with her mom and sister, curled up with a book.
In high school, her honors history teacher asked Riley’s class who had heard of the Orangeburg Massacre, the 1968 shooting of 30 young black people, mostly students, by state highway patrolmen at nearby South Carolina State University. A handful of Riley’s peers raised their hands. The shootings had taken place after several days of protest calling for the integration of the town’s bowling alley, her teacher said. Suddenly, Riley understood why she never bowled.
“If I hadn’t been in that class, I never would’ve talked about it,” says Riley, who now teaches chemistry at her alma mater, Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School. “Who’s talking to my students about it? Probably no one.”
Riley suspects that her mother—like many black parents in Orangeburg—didn’t discuss the town’s past as a way of protecting her daughter for as long as possible. But pragmatism probably played a role, too, she says. For the many black parents who work odd shifts at the factories on Orangeburg’s outskirts, time with their kids is precious. “When they do get to talk to their kids, why would they talk about something negative?”
When Riley was training in Mississippi this past July to become a teacher, fellow corps members traveled to Baton Rouge to protest the police shooting of Alton Sterling. “My mom said, ‘You better not go down there ‘cause you’ve got to live,’” Riley recalls. “Her immediate reaction was, ‘You’re going to be the next one shot.’”
Riley understands why her mother felt that way. In a town where the memory of the killings lingers, parents’ fears are not unwarranted. But for Riley’s two daughters and her students, she hopes to work through it. “Growing up, I was ready to get out of Orangeburg. I thought there was nothing to do here,” she says. “Now, I think why can’t we create something here?”
- Want to learn more about the Orangeburg Massacre or to teach it to your students? Read The Orangeburg Massacre by Jack Bass and Jack Nelson, two award-winning journalists who covered the event.
- Watch “Scarred Justice: The Orangeburg Massacre, 1968,” a 2008 documentary that aired on PBS television stations.
- Teach For America South Carolina works with the Racial Equity Institute to train corps members, alumni, and community partners. Its website includes a list of resources for understanding racism and its impacts.