HBCUs and the 1950s Red Scare

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tags: racism, civil rights, African American history, South Carolina, teaching history, HBCU, Protest, colleges and universities

Candace Cunningham, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of History, and specializes in African American history, Women and Gender studies, and Public History. Her research is on the 20th century African American experience with a special emphasis on civil rights, education, gender, and the South. Her 2021 article, “‘Hell is Popping Here in South Carolina’: Orangeburg County Black Teachers and Their Community in the Immediate Post-Brown Era” was published in the History of Education Quarterly. She recently collaborated with the Boca Raton Museum of Art to conduct oral histories and write an essay that will accompany a photography exhibit on Pearl City, a Boca Raton’s oldest neighborhood, and its only historically black community. She is currently finishing her manuscript on Black teacher activists in the civil rights movement. You can follow her on Twitter @candace_n_c.

In the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, racial tensions rose as African Americans began immediately submitting school desegregation petitions. In South Carolina, white supremacists used legal and extralegal methods to launch a full-scale assault against civil rights activists. Faculty and students at Black colleges and universities became major targets of these methods. For instance, when South Carolina State University and Claflin University students joined a boycott against segregationist-owned businesses in 1956, the legislature targeted South Carolina State students, and school administrators expelled the student activists. Some expelled students transferred to private HBCUs, such as Allen University and Benedict College. These institutions were safer for activists because their reliance on philanthropic support, rather than state funds, protected them from the political impulses of governors and state legislatures.

Unable to use state funding to control students and faculty at private Black colleges, South Carolina segregationists turned to more creative methods. On September 9, 1957, Governor George Bell Timmerman, Jr., and the State Board of Education withdrew Allen University’s teacher certification in a closed-door meeting. The decertification meant that Allen’s graduating education majors would not be certified to teach in South Carolina. The board did not explain why they took this action, but an unidentified board member said it was connected to the university’s refusal to fire three professors. When the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) made inquiries, Gov. Timmerman replied curtly that it was none of their business. But the AAUP was concerned about Allen’s graduates and the fate of academic freedom and tenure for Allen faculty.

The three professors in question were John G. Rideout, Edwin Hoffman, and Forest Oran Wiggins. Wiggins was Black, but Rideout and Hoffman were white—proving that whiteness did not protect people who challenged the South’s racial mores. The US House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had files on Rideout and Hoffman. According to Allen University president Frank R. Veal, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigated the three faculty members but “could find no proof to support the claims” that they were Communists or communist sympathizers. He acknowledged that two of the professors had HUAC files, but their main transgressions were that they signed “certain petitions” or lent their names “as sponsors of certain programs,” or attended “certain meetings,” or participated in “lawful elections.” Veal and his colleagues concluded that all the alleged offenses fell within the professors’ constitutionally guaranteed rights. He simply didn’t have enough evidence to recommend the three professors’ dismissal.

But Gov. Timmerman made it difficult for Veal and his colleagues to maintain this stance. On January 15, 1968, Timmerman made the Allen faculty members a central part of his address to the legislature—without addressing them by name. He used their membership or participation in allegedly subversive organizations to make dubious claims of communist connections. For instance, he said one was a leader in the New Hampshire Progressive Party, which was “dominated by C.P.” while another was an educational director in the Idaho Pension Union, which he called “a subversive organization.” He charged a third with having his name in the University of Minnesota library bookshop, which he deemed a “CP setup.”

 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives