Representatives of Clemson University’s past, present and future assembled under the high ceilings of the R.M. Cooper Library Saturday night to celebrate sixty years of the University’s integration. The University’s current president Jim Clements, president emeritus James Barker, current and past members of the Board of Trustees, members of the Clemson Tigers football team and current student government representatives joined trailblazing alumni like professor emeritus Gloria Sanders McCutcheon, who was the first African American to earn both an undergraduate in zoology and a master’s degree in entomology at Clemson, for a high-spirited evening of poignant speeches and emotional tributes.
Despite the impressive roster of guests, the biggest celebrity of the night was a demure gentleman in a dark suit who quietly entered the gala with his grandson by his side. Harvey Gantt, 80, who became Clemson’s first African American student in 1963, was swarmed with admirers young and old as soon as he walked through the doors.
Clements recognized Gantt in his opening speech.
“Mr. Gantt, your courage, determination, tenacity and unrelenting pursuit for the opportunity to receive an education at Clemson proved to be a turning point in the history of the University, this state, and beyond. You set a path not only for yourself, but for generations of students who would follow you.”
One of those students was featured speaker McCutcheon ’73, M ‘78, the current chair and professor of biology at Claflin University, who enrolled at Clemson in 1969 and went on to serve as a biology professor at Clemson for 33 years. She said the anniversary gave her time to reflect on her experiences and the impact they have had. She recalled there wasn’t even a ladies’ room in the Research Center when she started work as a Clemson professor in 1973. Once the facility was renovated, she started a science camp for girls.
“There was doubt by some – perhaps even by me because I was a unique figure,” said McCutcheon. “But not just Clemson’s history, global history has been impacted because of individuals who have crossed these paths. Current and future generations need to understand how history is shaped by these events. For example, one of my students who earned a degree in entomology became the first black female medical entomologist in the Navy, and another student is a tenured full professor here at Clemson. Imagine the impact that they have had on so many lives.”
Clements noted that the symbol for a 60th anniversary, the diamond, is a fitting representation for all the people who fought to integrate Clemson.
“A natural diamond is formed after carbon deposits underground are subject to intense pressure and high temperature. The carbon bonds together, forming crystals. The crystals connect to one another resulting in a diamond, which is one of the most durable, beautiful and valuable materials on our planet,” said Clements. “Many of you know that I was a computer science major, I’m not a geologist. But if you look around tonight, think of the people who are here: from Harvey Gantt, to Faye Houston, to Anthony Brown and many, many others. They were able to take their experiences under extreme pressure and reveal themselves as strong and amazing people who had a great impact. They are the diamonds of our history. Their experiences and their work helped to get us where we are today, and it has been invaluable.”
The doors opened by Gantt and his fellow pioneers have widened considerably in the last 60 years. Clements noted that in the last decade alone, Clemson’s enrollment of underrepresented minority students has more than doubled, and the number of African American and Hispanic faculty and staff has increased by 22 percent. Clemson has won the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) award, the only national honor recognizing U.S. colleges and universities that demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion across their campus, six years in a row, and has been named a Diversity Champion for the fifth straight year – putting Clemson in the top tier of all HEED award institutions.
Clements also pointed out some of Clemson’s inclusion and diversity programs that are making significant impact, including the Men of Color National Summit, the Women’s Roundtable, Tiger Alliance, Call Me Mister, PEER/WISE, Emerging Scholars, and many others.
Despite making such great headway, Clements said, there is still much work to be done.
“We still have a lot of important work to do. I hope that as we celebrate this historic evening, we continue to be encouraged to have thoughtful discussion about how we can keep making progress toward making this the best University that it can be for everyone, and that Clemson will become a national model in higher education where everyone feels welcome, and everyone feels valued, and everyone can succeed.”
Student body president Malik Balogun took the podium and thanked Gantt for paving the way for every minority Clemson student who came after him, which he pointed out include his mother, who was in the audience, and himself.
“You opened the door for my mother to become a proud Clemson alum, which then opened the door for me to become a proud Clemson student,” Balogun said. “Because of the many paths trailblazed by Black students in the last 60 years, especially in the couple of decades after integration, I’ve been able to not just attend Clemson University but lead at Clemson University. You all truly are diamonds who left a mark on Clemson in a special way. Tonight, we pause to say thank you for your courage, your resilience, your generosity, and your legacy. It is my hope that I too will leave a legacy at Clemson that opens more doors for Black students to excel.”