In S.C., a Native Son Comes Full Circle

April 24, 2008

Looking back, it's as if Cleveland Sellers was preparing his entire life to become president of Voorhees College.

After all, he was born in Denmark, S.C., home of the historically black Episcopal institution, and he even graduated from the college's affiliated high school in 1962. For the past 15 years, Sellers has driven an hour and 15 minutes -- each way, each day -- between Denmark, where he still lives, and Columbia, where he is director of the African American studies program at the University of South Carolina. So in a real sense, when his duties commence this fall, he'll be coming home both figuratively and literally.

"For me it’s almost a complete circle," Sellers says, recalling a time when he was 3 or 4, acting as a "mascot" for the college where his mother was on the faculty and where he would be named president over half a century later. He'd go on to attend Voorhees -- which at that time of heavily enforced segregation was a junior college with an affiliated private high school for black students -- for the 9th through 12th grades. It gave him a taste of higher education, a passion he'd go on to pursue, first as an undergraduate at Howard University, then later on earning a master's degree in education at Harvard University and an Ed.D. at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"It was a college experience.... It was a world-class educational experience that we got," Sellers said of Voorhees.

But before pursuing the life of an academic and an educator, the civil rights movement made an activist out of Sellers, who like many young students at historically black colleges in the 1960s found himself participating in nonviolent civil disobedience through groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After graduating from Howard, he returned to South Carolina as a grassroots civil rights organizer. On Feb. 8, 1968, he came face to face with the brutal violence he'd worked to fight.

On that day, activists had staged a protest, held at the historically black South Carolina State University, against a local whites-only bowling alley. Police officers at the scene opened fire and killed three young men, wounding 27, one of whom was Sellers. Later dubbed the "Orangeburg Massacre," the incident never received the kind of publicity as the Kent State shootings in 1970 but anticipated the race-fueled bloodshed the nation would see two months later with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The police officers were acquitted in a federal trial; Sellers went to jail, eventually serving seven months on a rioting conviction. That protesting segregation would land a black man in jail while killing black men didn't have the same effect has been noted by many historians. Sellers was eventually pardoned, some 25 years later, but opted to keep the conviction on his record as a "badge of honor," he said at the time.

That incident -- and many others like it, of course -- galvanized the movement at black colleges and gave students and professors a sort of moral urgency. In an interview Wednesday with Inside Higher Ed, Sellers made repeated references to the tradition of rigorous teaching at historically black institutions, focusing on an acknowledgment that education was key to advancement in the African-American community and reinforcing the values of service and good character.

Sellers credits that brand of schooling with giving him the confidence and motivation to succeed in his own life. It's a philosophy of education that goes back to the elite image of the "Morehouse man," an upstanding, community-conscious, well-rounded student who embodies the hopes of a community still shut out of society's dominant institutions. (At Morehouse, that idea is also having something of a resurgence.)

Sellers found a similar emphasis on leadership and character in the Boy Scouts, where he was blocked from earning the top rank of Eagle Scout. Although he'd passed all the requirements, Sellers was told that his paperwork was lost, and he didn't officially gain the honor until last year.

Voorhees opened in 1897 as the Denmark Industrial School. Its founder, Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, took her inspiration from Booker T. Washington, whom Sellers cites, along with W. E. B. DuBois, as "the kind of icons and the kinds of educators that were role models for us" growing up on a black college in the South. "[Y]ou’ve been told that education becomes real important to the African-American community, and service back to the community is one of the ... commandments that are expected of those who have gone on and been successful in life and in their communities," he said. "The expectation is that you give back."

And that's what Sellers now has a chance to do, given that besides his own history with the college and the town of Denmark, he's also an Episcopalian. But, like some other historically black institutions that aren't called Morehouse or Spelman, Sellers noted, Voorhees suffers from lagging enrollments, financial shortfalls, a curriculum in need of overhaul and students who turn to loans to pay for their education.

So his initial priorities on day one, Sellers said, will be the same as those of many presidents in his position: increasing enrollment, jump-starting a capital campaign and soliciting donations from alumni, adding rigor to the curriculum, addressing (as best as possible) students' financial needs.

When he met recently with students and faculty, he said, there was a "certain excitement that we were going to mobilize the college," a "We Are Voorhees” spirit that he hopes to turn into a concrete plan for change.

But Sellers believes that will entail returning to a mindset when the college was able to instill faith and self-esteem in students. While it's much less likely today for a student protester to be gunned down by police, he conceded, historically black institutions are in a more precarious situation than they were 40 years ago. Many lack for funding, and African Americans have a vastly wider array of colleges to choose from. Perhaps part of the solution, he suggests, would be to somehow restore some of that moral urgency to the college's mission.

"If you look back and talk about the movement and the spark that kind of moved it along after the Montgomery bus boycott and the death of Emmett Till, it was young people at HBCUs that galvanized around the sit-ins that actually got the movement moving with a new set of tactics, and that was nonviolent direct action ...," he points out. "That [was] a positive." On some level, he said, it's important to let "people know what we have gone through.”

"We have seen the benefits of this institution and we are seriously working toward getting the college back to those heights that we had seen in the earlier years."

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