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‘I had a purpose for being there’

Last updated January 21, 2021

By Sarita Chourey

The secret treat was sometimes grits, sometimes salmon croquettes.

Rawn Harbor ’71.

Whatever the special offering, the Black dining hall employees who gave it to Rawn Harbor ’71 did so with a sense of knowing, a recognition that he and five or so others were doing something profoundly difficult and important.

Harbor, one of Furman’s first African American students, had not planned to go to Furman or, really, to any college. The people he had grown up with in the New Town Park neighborhood of Greenville, South Carolina, were not attending college.

But Furman had recently opened its doors to Black students. And Harbor’s school music teacher, Carmelita C. Hopkins, and his pastor, Rev. David C. Francis of Springfield Baptist Church, made him apply, seeing in him a potential that could not be ignored. Harbor’s mother had died when he was 3, so his aunt and members of the community had raised him.

When Harbor arrived at Furman, he discovered that he was truly poor. The middle class Black students from his segregated high school had revealed this to some extent. But at Furman, it was a different world entirely. Students spoke of going skiing, visiting the Adirondacks and vacationing in Italy.

“I was certainly filled with anxiety,” said Harbor. “These were people I’d never been around before, talking about things I’d never experienced.”

The disparities in K-12 education between Blacks and whites required Harbor to complete a summer catch-up term at Furman before his first fall semester. His history professor during that summer would sometimes pick him up from the bus stop on Buncombe and drive him to campus. Other professors, too, took special care with Harbor.

“There were also my voice instructors who were amazing to me, and I will never forget them” – among them Milburn Price and Sidney Buckley, he said.

And then there was Charlotte Smith.

She was his music theory and counterpoint professor, and she loved him.

“It was quite unusual because she was such a wonderfully gifted person in music theory and very precise in what she needed from a student,” said Harbor, “and I am not saying I was the best student in the world, but I’m sure I probably surprised her by having an aptitude for music theory.”

Smith’s exacting critiques were known to stay with students, her praise even more so. In his senior year independent study with Smith, Harbor composed “Sunrise on the Lake,” a piece for oboe and piano.

“She had good things to say about it, but not all things good, mind you, because this is Charlotte Smith we’re talking about,” said Harbor. “So to get two or three (complimentary) things from her among the 15 she didn’t care for is amazing.” Smith died in 2015.

Music Professor Charlotte R. Smith, pictured in Bonhomie in 1979.

It wasn’t the first time Harbor’s abilities set him apart.

He became one of the very few students at the time to write their way out of a writing course needed for graduation, something others had spent nearly four years trying to do. Harbor’s winning story, crafted during his second semester at Furman, was about babysitting a monkey.

Awareness and awe

Harbor wasn’t thinking about the historic weight of his presence at Furman.

“I had a purpose for being there, to get a degree,” he said, “and that was all I was thinking about.”

But the experience was uncomfortable. There were the late-night, solitary walks back to his residence hall from the music building where he had been practicing. There were the fraught trips to the dining hall where white students were either uncomfortably solicitous when he sat at their table or gave a curt “hello” and turned their back to him. It felt like someone’s camera lens was always following him.

“Nobody knew what to do with us,” said Harbor. “There was a schizophrenic relationship with the student body.”

His community came to his rescue. Harbor went home every weekend at 4:30 on Friday afternoons. His high school music teacher, Mrs. Hopkins, or someone else from his upbringing would pick him up.

“I went back to the world that I knew to get some kind of grounding,” he said.

On Sunday evenings, Harbor would return to Furman, loaded up with dollar bills and food – bread, fruit, sodas – from friends and members of his church, their way of helping him limit his trips to the dining hall.

It was this community that made Furman possible to him.

“The church basically sponsored me with additional monies given to me personally,” said Harbor. “Through scholarships, grants and the church, I was able to attend Furman, as my family was unable to contribute any monetary support.” He took out loans to cover the rest.

Harbor eventually made friends of both races on campus. One of his white roommates remains beloved and recently told Harbor that when they were students, other male students would spit at him for having a Black roommate.

Harbor would occasionally meet up for meals with the half-dozen other Black students, including Joseph Vaughn ’68.

“I had a remote association (with Vaughn), and it was because he was a member of the broader community there in Greenville as well as the first Black student at Furman,” he said.

“When I say ‘remote,’ remote is not a bad word,” added Harbor, an introvert compared to Vaughn, a charismatic leader and older-brother figure who encouraged other Black students when they felt discouraged.

“He was a person I was tremendously in awe of,” said Harbor of Vaughn, “but I never thought that I could enter into his world.” 

A brilliant career

Harbor’s story is one of profound, irrepressible talent realized.

Today he has a celebrated career in Catholic liturgy, music and composition.

“Because of the education I had at Furman, I was among the first in other completely white settings,” said Harbor. “I’m a member of the Catholic church, which is basically white in its outlook and constituency. To be an African American Catholic was something that was unusual.”

A chance meeting in 1973 and subsequent work with priest Fr. Clarence Joseph Rivers Jr., who was known as the central figure in the liturgical movement of the Black Catholics in the Roman Catholic Church, initiated Harbor’s understanding of Catholic liturgy and liturgical music. Harbor was confirmed in 1984 while working in the office of campus ministry and taking a course at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

His career would take him across the country and the world.

Harbor has served as the director of the Office for Worship in the diocese of Wichita, Kansas, a pastoral associate, liturgical musician and liturgist for the Saint Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, California, an adjunct instructor, director of music and liturgy for the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California, where he earned a Masters of Theological Studies with an emphasis in liturgy, an adjunct instructor in the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans and an instructor in performing arts at the University of San Francisco.

“Furman gave me a tremendous education,” said Harbor, who lives in Maryland and remains deeply involved in Catholic music and liturgy. “It opened many, many, many doors for me.”

Editor’s note: In celebration of Joseph Vaughn Day at Furman University, we are recognizing the experiences of other African American alumni who enrolled soon after the university integrated in 1965.

Last updated January 21, 2021
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