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Winthrop University celebrates 60 years of integration

Winthrop University in Rock Hill admitted the first Black students in 1964, the beginning of integration at the all-white college for women.
Winthrop University
Winthrop University in Rock Hill admitted the first Black students in 1964, the beginning of integration at the all-white college for women.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Winthrop University’s integration. The school was founded in 1886 in Rock Hill as a place for white women only. African American women could not even apply to Winthrop.

In 1961, 19 Black women from nearby Friendship College staged a picket in front of the school after being turned away when they tried to get enrollment applications. Three years later, Winthrop’s board voted unanimously to admit one Black applicant. That student was Cynthia Plair Roddey, a library science graduate student. Roddey began taking classes in June 1964.

Cynthia Plair Roddey became the first Black student to enroll at Winthrop University in the summer of 1964. Three other Black students were admitted for the fall of that year—Delores Johnson Hurt, the late Arnetta Gladden Mackey, and Sue Frances Meriwether Steed. A gala honoring them will be held April 6 on the campus.
Cynthia Plair Roddey
Cynthia Plair Roddey became the first Black student to enroll at Winthrop University in the summer of 1964. Three other Black students were admitted for the fall of that year — Delores Johnson Hurt, the late Arnetta Gladden Mackey, and Sue Frances Meriwether Steed. A gala honoring them will be held April 6 on the campus.

Three other Black undergraduate students were quietly admitted for the fall session that same year. Roddey, who worked for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for 30 years, tells WFAE’s Gwendolyn Glenn that breaking the color barrier at Winthrop was not on her mind when she applied.

Cynthia Plair Roddey: I wasn't even thinking about that. I was looking at going to library school, and I guess being 22 years old with two babies in diapers — even though I knew we were right in the Civil Rights movement — my purpose wasn't to integrate the school. I was going because it was convenient. I could walk to the campus. I guess it was just the weekend before I was to enroll that I really realized what I was doing because police showed up at my house to let me know that they would be my security. My neighbors came with shotguns to let me know that they were going to protect my family, and I didn't have to worry, just go to school.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Now, when the police showed up and when your neighbors showed up with guns, did that frighten you? Because as you said, you weren't thinking about what you were actually doing.

Roddey: It did. And as a matter of fact, we did not stay in our house that we were living in Rock Hill. We came out to my in-laws home just in case something would happen. So when I sent that little (admissions) postcard off, all I was thinking about was, OK, I'm going to complete these hours and get my library certification.

Glenn: And where were you working at the time?

Roddey: I was teaching English at Emmett Scott High School at the time.

Glenn: And that was an all-Black school, correct?

Roddey: That was an all-Black school.

Cynthia Plair Roddey, a library science graduate student was the first Black student to enroll at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Winthrop University
Cynthia Plair Roddey, a library science graduate student was the first Black student to enroll at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Glenn: So you didn't live on campus, but did you know that three other Black students were living on campus separate from the white students?

Roddey: Yes. They had their own little suite. Their own little bathroom. The students didn't want to use the bathroom that they used. I recognize that this was a continuation of the Old South — the prejudices, the myths about Black people, and that the college had not really done a good job of making them welcome.

We were isolated, we were tolerated, it wasn't true integration. I didn't know a lot of people. And walking across campus, people weren't speaking to you and looking at you and wondering why you're going in there. So, you did have an uneasiness. And I do remember I went into the bathroom one time, and then somebody came in and started talking to me. And I found out she was a reporter. She was trying to find out who was paying my tuition. And so, you had to be cautious about who you were talking to and watching your back.

Glenn: And that caused stress?

Roddey: Yes, that's caused stress. And Winthrop had what you call peaceful integration. It was voluntarily done by the trustee board as opposed to going to court. So there was not a lot of media behind it. I think a lot of people who saw me on campus thought I was probably one of the workers in the dormitories because I knew the young ladies who worked there. They had been my classmates, and that's who I often had lunch with. I didn't go to the cafeteria. I wasn't in study groups — pretty much isolated.

My advisors and the teachers I had made me feel welcome, but I did not have a relationship with the students. I had one class where every time I attempted to say something, I would be interrupted by another student. And the teacher commented to me something about my not participating in class, but she did not control the students just talking over me if I started talking when the professor asked me a question.

I also had one class where, by this time I was working in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, who was a fellow librarian and she let me know right away that she did not think that Black students should have been admitted (to Winthrop). If you look in the archives, there are letters there, by alumni, by students and by some professors who did not think that this was the right time for integration.

Local media covers efforts by Blacks to apply to Winthrop University, founded in 1886 as a all-white college for women.
Winthrop University
Local media covers efforts by Blacks to apply to Winthrop University, founded in 1886 as an all-white college for women.

Glenn: Now I understand that there's going to be a big gala this weekend at Winthrop for the 60th anniversary of the integration of Winthrop. Do you plan to attend?

Roddey: Yes. You know, it was quite a coincidence, but it happens to fall on my birthday, April 6. So yes, I don't have to plan a party because Winthrop is going to give me a big to do. Yeah!

Glenn: So, what message do you want to leave people with after the event? Or what do you hope the event will accomplish beyond just the 60th anniversary?

Roddey: I think it shows for Winthrop that it has been able to move from the, what I call, tokenism to full diversity inclusion. They have that in their 25-year plan. They're looking forward, and the fact that I feel comfortable going and I feel welcome.

It's like going from the Dark Ages to the New Enlightenment because when I went to Winthrop, the campus was dark and dreary. I did not even attend my graduation. We were still in the midst of civil strife, and I just felt like the stress of having to be better than anybody else, that stress after three years. So, as soon as I finished my oral exam, I ran home, got my babies and my husband and we went on vacation. I just did not want to go through the stress of the graduation ceremony, the news media. I got my degree. I'm gone.

Winthrop officials say diversity and inclusion are major priorities at the university which has an enrollment of about 5,000 students — more than 30 percent of them are Black.
Gwendolyn Glenn
Winthrop officials say diversity and inclusion are major priorities at the university which has an enrollment of about 5,000 students — more than 30% of them are Black.

Glenn: Any other thoughts on your mind as this 60th anniversary approaches?

Roddey: Well, I'm really hopeful and I am optimistic because I have progressed. I did not go to Winthrop's Homecoming because I didn't feel like that was my school. I graduated from Johnson C. Smith. If I wanted to go to homecoming, I’d go to Johnson C. Smith.

But as the years have progressed and I have met other Winthrop alumni, and I have become friends with some of the professors there. Now I feel that I’m at least an 'Eaglet,' you know? I hope that after this commencement, I will feel like a full-fledged (Winthrop) Eagle.

Glenn: Roddey will deliver the commencement address at Winthrop’s graduation ceremonies this year. She was the first Black to enroll at Winthrop and the school’s first Black graduate student to receive a degree from the university. On Saturday, Roddey and three other students who enrolled at Winthrop in the fall of 1964 — Delores Johnson Hurt, the late Arnetta Gladden Mackey, and Sue Frances Meriwether Steed — will be honored at a gala on campus.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.
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