Leaving a legacy
Joseph Vaughn, a Greenville African-American student, broke the color barrier at Furman University on January 29, 1965, becoming a pioneer in race relations.
David Shi ’73, Furman’s tenth President, spoke at a gala celebrating the establishment of the Joseph Vaughn Scholarship Fund. This was also the final event of Furman’s year-long commemoration of 50 years since it’s desegregation.
Vaughn experienced no ugly incidents and was able to “shrug off” the loneliness and frustration by focusing on obtaining a quality education, Shi said. He quoted Vaughn as saying years later, “I never thought of myself as a minority. I was a majority of one.”
In addition, Furman alumna Lillian Brock Flemming ’71, vice mayor pro tem of Greenville City Council, and Sarah Reese ’71, a world renowned opera singer, challenged those in attendance to Pay it Forward by contributing to the Vaughn scholarship. Reese sang an a cappella version of “If I Can Help Somebody, Then My Living Shall Not Be In Vain.”
Events commemorating major anniversaries must balance celebration and solemnity, said Shi who retired from Furman five years ago. While Furman has moved forward in racial diversity since Vaughn enrolled, “we need to give equal attention to how much more still needs to be done, for a college is much more than a seat of learning. It also is a repository of history, a microcosm of society and an incubator of social change.
“The work of equal justice is never complete, but we can take justified pride in how much Furman has accomplished while acknowledging how far we still have to go,” he said.
Before Vaughn, Jesse Jackson, also Greenville native, wanted to attend Furman. But he was several years older than Vaughn and Furman was an unreachable dream despite his connections to the school. His grandmother did the laundry for several fraternities, earning 20 cents for each shirt.
Jackson instead went to the University of Illinois, with the help of Bob King, the Furman football coach. King told colleagues at Illinois that Jackson, a superb athlete, could play in the Big Ten. He went there for a year but discovered the North has its own form of racism and transferred to North Carolina A&T.
The timing was better for Vaughn. He was a standout at Sterling High, speaking fluent French, presiding over the student body, and graduating third in his class.
The story of Vaughn’s enrollment at Furman despite the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s active opposition has been told often. In the spring of 1964, Gordon Blackwell, president of Florida State University and a leader of the integration efforts there, agreed to become Furman’s new president if the school embraced desegregation, Shi said.
The trustees approved the acceptance of any students who were qualified, but the Convention would not support that move. Vaughn’s acceptance was delayed so Furman arranged for him to attend Joseph C. Smith University in Charlotte. Eventually the Convention voted down Furman’s new policy.
In the face of that action, the University’s board of trustees, called a meeting. Dr. Frank Bonner, the interim president, “implored the trustees with an almost frantic urgency to defy the Convention’s segregationist stance,” Shi said. The board did—and Vaughn enrolled in January 1965.
A model student, he excelled in classes, served as head cheerleader, coordinated important campus forums, and volunteered in the Student Service Corps. He also mentored African-American students who followed him and led protests in Greenville. After graduation, he earned master’s degrees at the University of South Carolina and the University of Georgia and taught in Greenville County’s school system.
“Joe Vaughn’s story pricks our consciences and rattles our complacency,” Shi said, “for, like Rosa Parks, James Meredith, Harvey Gantt, and many others, he chose to escape his destiny and defy outdated traditions.
“Most of us spend our days living in the land of Is, as creatures of habit, of tradition, of convention, of routine, and, yes, as creatures of bias and prejudice.
“Joe Vaughn lived in the land of What Could Be and What Should Be. He saw a different future radiant with possibility. He revealed that one person, black, brown, or white, can be a freedom rider by visiting a new neighborhood, going down an unfamiliar street, joining strangers on a walk or enrolling at a college,” Shi said.
Shi also spoke of Rodney Acker, who became the first African American on a Furman football team while Shi was on the team. A quiet, gentle man, Acker was a trailblazer just as Vaughn was. Also, while at Furman Shi joined other college students at ROTC summer camp at Fort Bragg, N.C., His bunkmate there was Carl Ross, an African-American cadet, from Fort Valley State in south Georgia.
They quickly became friends and met their girlfriends one weekend in Greenville.
“All worked well until the four of us loaded into my car in Greenville and headed to a restaurant for dinner. Our naiveté about Greenville’s slow embrace of integration quickly became evident as our multi-racial quartet became the focus of startled glances, angry stares, and undisguised disgust. It was one of the most discomforting and enlightening episodes of my young life,” he said.
Despite the euphoria that America had entered a post-racial period after it elected an African-American president, a recent CNN poll reported that 40 percent of Americans think race relations have deteriorated during the administration of President Barack Obama while 15 percent saw improvement.
How much race matters “remains a subject of dispute—and a healthy spur to redeem the soul of a still fractured and suffering nation,” Shi said. “Desegregation is subtly different from integration.”
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s focused on legal and voting rights. Little success came in attacking the racial dynamics of chronic unemployment, urban decay, family disruptions, drug abuse, criminal justice and housing discrimination. Although more African Americans now live in suburbs, those suburbs tend to be primarily black. Housing segregation means black and Latino students have less interaction with white students than in 1970.
As the nation becomes more diverse and tolerant, it is attempting to make “a more perfect union,” Shi said, referring to a phrase in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the name of a speech by presidential candidate Obama. “Joe Vaughn’s vision of a color-blind Furman, still not fully realized, remains the guardian spirit for all those committed to make a more perfect university—and a more perfect Union.”
Shi challenged all to forgive each other, redeem each other and move on so the University and the nation will be a more perfect place where all are welcome.
“That, my friends, is a future worth fighting for,” he said.