As of October 8, 1963, the Furman University Board of Trustees passed the admissions policy that allowed for “qualified students regardless of race or color, to attend Furman.” ("Wisdom Seen In Decision of Trustees"13) Many of the Trustees were hesitant about passing such reform but “only one member dissented from supporting the decision, which favored desegregation on the basis that it was in Furman’s best interests.” (Tollison 105) Furman’s non-partisan Advisory Council widely supported the policy, except for one member “who slammed his hand down on the table and said 'when Furman admits a nigger to this campus, then I have nothing more to do with it that day’” (interview).
On October 15, 1963 at the “General Board of the South Carolina Baptist Conventions” annual meeting, the board members voted to “ask the Furman trustees to postpone proceeding under this interpretation of the admissions policy for a year” (Wood 4) so that the convention could establish an admissions policy for all South Carolina Baptist colleges. The Board of Trustees gave in to the convention and all proceedings were put to a halt.
President John L. Plyler announced his plans on retiring on January 28, 1964. The Board of Trustees was left with the objective of finding a new president. Their search led them to Gordon Blackwell, then President of Florida State University. The conditions of Blackwell’s coming to Furman were that Furman be an integrated school. But on October 13, 1964, Blackwell’s hopes were smashed when the Executive Committee of the General Board of the South Carolina Baptist Convention “found it impractical, to adopt a uniform admissions policy for all of these colleges” ("Wisdom Seen In Decision of Trustees"13). The Executive Committee offered the recommendation that the General Board “approve the policy of allowing each college to deal with student admission in whatever way the trustees feel is best” (Wood 4). The recommendation was made before the South Carolina Baptist Convention. It was defeated 943 to 915 not granting the Trustees the power of the admissions policy and 905 to 575 not allowing the integration of Baptist schools. The Convention, although aware of its responsibilities to the General Board had a higher responsibility to God. (Reid 199)
In late 1964, the “Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) issued a warning to administrators at southern educational institutions that encouraged immediate compliance with federal law” (Tollison). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forced institutions accepting any sum of federal assistance to follow the federal law. (Tollison 112) Given Furman’s great dependence on Federal Aid, not submitting to this law was not an option for Furman and its Trustees.
On December 8, 1964 the Board of Trustees held a special meeting to discuss their admissions policy. In an eloquent and persuasive speech, Dean Bonner convinced the Board of Trustees “to reinstate the previously passed policy of racial non-discrimination” (Tollison 115). The same day Gordon Blackwell officially became Furman’s President. On February 2, 1965, four African-American students enrolled at Furman University.
Baptist Association Minutes. Proc. of ...Integration. 1960-1969 ed.
John Plyler Presidential Papers, Box 5 Baptists, folder titled Integration, Special Collections & Archives, Furman University Library.
"Reaffirmation of the Admissions Policy." The Furman University Magazine Winter 1965: Volume XIV. No. 4 4-6. Special Collections & Archives, Furman University Library.
Reid, Alfred Sandlin. Furman University Toward A New Identity 1925-1975. N.p.: Duke University Press, 1976. Special Collections & Archives, Furman University Library.
Tollison, Courtney L. Moral Imperative and Financial Practicality, Desegregation of South Carolina's Denominationally-Affiliated Colleges and Universities. Diss. U of South Carolina, 2003.
Transcript of Interview with Ernie Harrill by Melissa Bateman. May, 7-13-01, Special Collections & Archives, Furman University Library.
"University Trustees Vote To Consider All Qualified Applicants." The Furman University Magazine Fall 1963: Vol. XII. No. 3 p. 11. Special Collections & Archives, Furman University Library.
"Wisdom Seen In Decision of Trustees." Editorial. The Furman University Magazine Fall 1963: 13. Rpt. in Greenville News. January 1961- Winter 1963-64 ed. Vols. 10-12 Special Collections & Archives, Furman University Library.
Wood, J Wilbert. Letter to Robert W Major, Rev. 16 Dec. 1964. John Plyler Presidential Papers, Box 5 Baptists, folder titled Integration, Furman University Special Archives and Collections.
Pictures courtesy of Furman University Special Archives and Collections.