Joseph Allen Vaughn was born in 1946 and attended Greenville’s all-black Sterling High School, a school at the center of the city’s Civil Rights Movement. He graduated third in his class and served as president of the French Club, the Physics Club, and the student body. As president of the Greenville and Southeastern NAACP Youth chapters, he met civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., and Roy Wilkins.
In May 1964, Vice President Francis Bonner and civic leader Sapp Funderburk hand-selected Vaughn to become the first African-American student at Furman University. He enrolled on January 29, 1965, hoping above all “to be a student” and “to be accepted as Joe Vaughn.” Though he experienced stress and loneliness at Furman, his joy and exuberance helped diffuse much of the tension he faced. He excelled both socially and academically, joining the Pershing Rifles, the Baptist Student Union, and the cheerleading squad. As chairman of the “Talk-a-Topic” committee, he organized forums to discuss race relations, student rights, and the Vietnam War. His senior year, as vice president of the Southern Student Organizing Committee, he led two peaceful civil rights demonstrations through downtown Greenville.
Vaughn graduated Furman cum laude in the spring of 1968 with a degree in English and became a teacher in the Greenville school system. His co-workers remember him as a “committed,” and “enthusiastic” teacher whose joy inspired students and whose words could “move crowds.” He led several district-wide drug education programs and reached out to students through special courses in creative writing, drama, and modern dance. He was a passionate political advocate, serving as president of the Greenville County Association of Teachers and the South Carolina Education Association. Though he retired from teaching in 1982, he remained a vocal social and political activist. He died at age 45 in Columbia on May 31, 1991.
In May 2019, the Furman Board of Trustees approved a number of recommendations outlined by the Task Force on Slavery and Justice in its “Seeking Abraham” report [PDF], including creating a sculpture of Vaughn and a place of celebration and reflection where the statue would be placed.
Located on and to the right of the front steps of the Duke Library, the place of celebration and reflection will help tell the story of Vaughn’s and others’ important contributions to Furman’s history.
The creation of Joseph Vaughn Day, held each year on January 29, and an enhanced scholarship in his name were also among these and other recommendations that were endorsed or approved by the university’s Board of Trustees.
For a full biography of Joseph Vaughn’s life, read the full article, “This is Him: The Life of Joseph Allen Vaughn” [PDF].