Remembering the Orangeburg Massacre in the Time of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis

In January of 1985, I flew  from Boston to Columbia, South Carolina, to find out. My first meeting was with Jack Bass, who ws then a  professor in the Mass Media and Communications department at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. In February 1968, Bass was serving as Columbia bureau chief for the Charlotte Observer, and he was in Orangeburg on the night of the eighth. He went on to write a history of the shootings, The Orangeburg Massacre, with Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Nelson. (It was originally published in 1970 and recently reissued by Mercer University Press; what follows draws heavily on its research.)

I. THE NIGHT BEFORE AT THE ALL-STAR BOWLING ALLEY

“The whole thing started with that bowling alley and a young man named John Stroman,” Bass began.

John Stroman had been born in Orangeburg but grew up in Savannah, Georgia, before moving back to Orangeburg and enrolling in the State College. Stroman loved to bowl and was dismayed to discover when he returned that the town’s only bowling alley — All Star Bowling Lanes — was still segregated.

Town officials had pressured the owner, Harry Floyd, and some leading white citizens had pleaded with him. But Floyd wouldn’t budge. He called his bowling alley a “private club” and refused admittance to all blacks.

But Stroman was not the kind of person to take no for an answer. After staging several mild protests at the All Star, on Tuesday, February 6, he  led a determined group of black students back to the bowling alley. They found 20 law enforcement officers protecting the premises, including J. P. Strom, director of the State Law Enforcement Division and the highest ranking law officer in the state. Stroman and four others were arrested for trespassing and were taken to jail.

That might have closed the matter, but news of the arrests quickly reached the  college campus, and within minutes, about 400 students had gathered near the bowling alley, angrily calling for Stroman’s release. Oscar Butler, one of the State College deans, persuaded Strom and Orangeburg Police Chief Roger Poston to release the jailed students with the understanding that they wouldreturn to the All Star  and help disperse the crowd.

This strategy probably would have worked if Poston had not made a fateful blunder: He ordered a fire truck to come tothe parking lot, unaware that State College and students from nearby Claflin College  had been hosed during a 1960 sit-in. Eight years later, on a cold winter night, that memory still rankled.

Suddenly someone kicked in the glass door of the bowling alley. Others started shoving.

Patrol Sergeant John S. Timmerman was pushing students with his riot baton when someone allegedly  threw a caustic liquid in his eyes. And then the police surged forward into the crowd, swinging their sticks. Some students fell to the ground and were beaten. Several young women were clubbed. Stroman himself was severely beaten when he went to the assistance of another student.

“On their way back to the campus,” Bass and Nelson report in their book, “the students vented their anger on white-owned businesses, throwing bricks, rocks, and sticks of firewood. They knocked out plate-glass windows at a furniture store, a florist shop, a tax office, and two filling stations. They scraped bricks along the paint of half a dozen or so parked cars, cracked windshields, snapped off radio antennas, and broke out windows at an auto display room . . . the East End Motor Company, a Lincoln-Mercury dealer.”

As quiet finally descended on Orangeburg that Tuesday night, students and townspeople were polarized as never before. Students were disgusted by police protection of Floyd and outraged by what they considered to be unprovoked police brutality. Many white businessmen, fearful that Orangeburg was about to become another Watts, vehemently demanded police protection. Governor Robert E. McNair mobilized 250 National Guardsmen and ordered them to report to a nearby armory.

II. ORANGEBURG IN THE LATE 1960s

According to Isaac “Ike” Willimans, whom I met with next, the white citizens of Orangeburg weren’t the only ones who were worried by – even hostile toward – the activism of students at State College and nearby Claflin Collehge. In the early 1960s, students  Williams was president of the senior class at State College in 1967 and went on to become South Carolina field director of the NAACP for 15 years. He remembered  remembers Orangeburg’s black community in the late ‘60s as being conservative and complacent

“Orangeburg had the highest concentration of the black, middle-class intelligentsia in South Carolina,” he told me. “Most of those people didn’t want to risk rocking the boat. If there had not been students in the town, that community would have felt very comfortable with a situation of limited segregation.” He chuckles. “But as you know, students back then were impatient. We wanted things now. Freedom now. Out of Vietnam now. Not tomorrow, but now.”

In 1968, however, State College was anything but a hotbed of radicalism or black-power rhetoric. The school boasted two elite ROTC groups, the National Association of Pershing Rifles and the National Society of Scabbard and Blade. The 1969 college yearbook shows ROTC members standing proudly at attention in tight-fitting dress uniforms, and practicing rifle fire in baggy fatigues. The formal portraits of the classes show students who might have graduated in 1959, not 1969: They wear dark suits and narrow ties, or white dresses, bows, and string pearls. Not one Afro. Not one beard. Not one miniskirt. Not one dashiki.

“Entering college in those days,” says Williams, “you found a bunch of  black kids who were caught between a war in Vietnam and a society in transition. Added to that you had the Camelot mystique of the Kennedys, a glittering hope that things could change.”

But at State College, students encountered an administration that utterly resisted change. “At many black colleges,” says Williams, “you had caretaker presidents who basically carried out the mandate of the local (white) leadership. Students felt that those people had to go.”

At State College, these issues had come to a head in the winter of 1967, when the president, Benner C. Turner, refused to renew the contracts of three popular young white professors who had voiced concern about the quality of education there. In February of the same year, Turner peremptorily suspended three students, including John Stroman, who had protested Turner’s treatment of the three white professors.

Predictably, instead of quieting the campus, Turner’s actions prompted further protest. Ike Williams and other student leaders called for a boycott of classes until the dismissed students were readmitted and the state of South Carolina made a firm commitment to improving the quality of education at State College.

The students were assisted in what they called “the cause” by a young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer, Cleveland Sellers, who was a native of Denmark, a town about 20 miles away. The negotiations, which involved Governor McNair and a number of distinguished black educators, led to a complete victory for the students.

President Turner resigned and was replaced by M. Maceo Nance, who was named acting president. “When classes resumed in the fall,” write Bass and Nelson, “students were named to all standing committees of the college, compulsory chapel attendance was abandoned, and students were allowed to dress as they pleased.”

Thus, until the incident at the bowling alley, the few student “radicals” at State College in 1968 were more concerned about the school’s commitment to high- quality education than about Orangeburg’s lingering racism. But the stubbornness of Harry Floyd and the ruthlessness of the state police suddenly made many  students feel that all the racial progress of the past eight years had been illusory.

III. THE NIGHT OF THE MASSACRE

On Thursday, February 8, two days after the violence outside the All Star, students at State College and Claflin were still angry. The day and evening had been relatively quiet, but as night fell, tensions mounted. Students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails (most of which failed to ignite) at the more than 150 National Guardsmen and law enforcement officers who had arrived in town and sealed off the campus.

Around 9:30 PM, a group of students on the State College campus decided to build a bonfire on College Avenue, the main road that runs in front of the college. Nearby was “Checkpoint Charlie,” the law enforcement command post.

As students gathered, a  bugle A bugle sounded “charge” from the State College campus.  It was dark by then. Shouting, “Hey, honky, come roast some marshmallows with us,” a few students threw bottles filled with gasoline onto the bonfire in an attempt to get it burning. Shortly after 10:30, J. P. Strom, who was still in Orangeburg and in direct communicationwith the governor, decided to call the fire department to have the bonfire put out. When the fire truck arrived, Strom ordered 66 state policemen to advance, in order to protect it. The students began to retreat, cursing, throwing rocks.

Suddenly one of the police officers, David Shealy, was knocked down by two banister posts hurled by the students.He fell to the ground, bleeding. Someone yelled, “Shealy’s been shot!” Most of the students retreated.

“It was now 10:38,” write Bass and Nelson about what happened next, ” – at least five minutes since Shealy had been injured – and the bonfire had been doused, although smoke continued to billow from the charred wood.”

Several dozen students began advancing across Lowman Field toward the 66 state policemen, 45 National Guardsmen, and between 30 and 40 other heavily armed police officers.

Accounts vary as to what happened next. In his statement to the FBI, Jesse Alfred Spell, a lieutenant in the South Carolina Highway Patrol at the time, said, “The mob of individuals numbering approximately 200 . . . started moving toward us. I raised both my arms in the air and told them to stop and quit throwing objects at the police. They continued coming at us, throwing rocks, bricks, sticks, and posts from the porch railing…. I realized the mob of people had to be stopped, as they would not listen to the police and would injure and possibly kill some of the officers. The mob of people continued to assault us and small-arms firing could be heard. At this point I ordered my squad to fire their weapons to stop the mob.”

The burst of gunfire was intense, catching the students on two sides. Nine squads of National Guardsmen and state police, a total of more than 100 men, fired with a variety of weapons, including M1 rifles, .38 caliber pistols, and shotguns loaded with buckshot.

The students,not one of who was in fact armed, fell to the ground or fled. Many were shot where they lay or in the back as they tried to escape.

Although other law enforcement officers would later claim, with Spell, that “small-arms fire could be heard,” no firing was seen and no traces of firing were later found on the scene.

Warren H. Koon, a reporter for the Charleston Evening Post and a former Marine combat veteran, later testified that he had heard no shooting from the campus “for at least 30 minutes, perhap 45 minutes” before the outbreak of police gunfire.

Bass and Nelson conclude that the shooting lasted for about 10 seconds. Johnny Bookhart, a 19-year-old student, was standing on the porch of Lowman Hall nearly 200 yards from the police. He was hit in the knee and fell to the ground. Henry Smith, at the front of the student group, was hit in the front and the side, spun around by the bullets’ impact, and hit again in the back. Charles W. Hildebrand, another student, later testified before a federal grand jury: “Upon falling (to the ground), I felt a blow in the back of my leg which felt like a piece of brick or something had been thrown against it. So I stayed on the ground maybe a half-second and got up and ran a step or two farther and was hit in the hip. I got up and ran again . . . and was shot a third time in the armpit. . . . I hid behind a trash can.”

Robert Lee Davis, Jr., 19, a linebacker for the college football team, was hit by a round of buckshot next to his spine. Bobby K. Burton, a sophomore, was hit in the right hand, left arm, and right leg; his right arm was paralyzed. Harvey Miller and Ernest Shuler, both high school students who had swung by the campus on their way home from a movie, were shot – Miller in the right leg, chest, and abdomen, Shuler in the right arm and right foot.

When the shooting stopped, 30 students lay wounded, three of them fatally.  Samuel Hammond, Jr., 18, had been shot in the back. He died at 11:30 p.m. Delano Middleton, a local high school student, had been shot once in the back, two inches to the left of his spine. He died at 1:10 a.m. Henry Smith, suffering from five wounds, died 35 minutes later.

Unknown

IV. ORANGEBURG IN 1985

When I visted Orangeburg on a clear winter day in 1985 — 29 years ago now, 17 years after the shootings — the town looked much as it had in 1968. There was still a shopping center on the edge of town, and although the A & P food store had gone out of business, the bowling alley was still there. And it was still owned and operated by Harry Floyd.

I walked through the doors, and looked for him, and he was not reluctant to talk with me.  “All that seems like a long time ago,” he said. “I seldom think about those days or hear them discussed. I always had good race relations – before the riot and after the riot. All that history has been written down. It’s done with, I’m finished with it, it’s water over the dam. I say, let it flow . . . I can’t speculate what I would do differently today. I’m still making a living and enjoying life, and that’s what counts.”

I left the blowling alley and turned south onto College Avenue, passing East End Motors. A salesman (white) gazed vacantly at the street through the dealership’s large, plate-glass windows.  New Lincolns and Mercurys wereparked side by side in the lot, their bright paint reflecting the thin winter sun.

A little farther on, I turned right onto the State College campus, which had changed much more than the town has since 1968. New buildings, many of them built soon after the shootings, stood out against the withered grass. Pine trees line some of the campus drives, along which students, most of them black, were walking to and from their classes. I go up the steps into the main administration building to meet with the College president, M. Maceo Nance.

Nance was the acting president of the college at the time of the shootings, and he became its president the following year, in part because of his able handling of the 1968 crisis.

That day,  at 58, he was a calm, imposing man who had seen many changes during his tenure.

“Of course, the incident,” said Nance, speaking slowly choosing hos words carefully, ”was paramount then and remains paramount now. It’s something you don’t forget. But history will record its full meaning only in the context of the period as a whole. This is not the only institution where turmoil took place. These were not the only lives that were lost.

“Back in 1969, I agreed to allow the incident to be commemorated by a Memorial Lecture. Now the students organize it themselves every year, on their own, and on the anniversary of the shooting we gather to remember it.”

He smiled ruefully . “Today you’d think that every student here would be present at the lecture, but that isn’t the case. I’m not being critical. It’s clearly very hard for them to comprehend that such events took place. For people like me who lived through those times, it’s amazing that the young have so little comprehension of the gravity of things back then – not justthe tragedy, but all aspects of segregation. Even my son, who’s in his early 20s now, says, ‘Oh, come on, Daddy, don’t tell me that stuff.’ ”

He laughed. “But we shouldn’t talk just about the young. That period of history wasn’t, shall we say, the most pleasant. People like to forget – and I include myself – people don’t like to rehash those days. You know, some time ago I was speaking about it, and I said something like, ‘We have not forgotten, nor have we forgiven.’ I was challenged about that statement by a minister, and I began to reflect that we who believe in a Supreme Being, whatever specific religion we belong to, are supposed to know how to forgive.

“I haven’t used that statement since that time. I’ve changed. That’s the kind of effect, for good and bad, that kind of incident can have on you.”

But another official at the college whom I spoke with, Dean Oscar Butler, was much less ready to forgive. He sat behind a desk cluttered with papers, books, mementos. On the wall hungs a large, forceful painting of Martin Luther King, Jr. Butler strikes me as a tough, unyielding man (I would soon learn that State College students had nicknamed him “The Fist”) , and he who shrugged off most of my questions with discernible impatience — as if he’d heard them all a hundred times before (and he probably had) and knew that in the long run they would lead nowhere.

In his view, I discover, the 1960s were less a time of protest and progress than a moment when white racism was forced to unmask itself. He is  pessimistic about the future.

“Times are approaching,” he told me, “when you might find those issues dominant again, with the same hate groups and the same attitudes. Students today live in a world of idealism, not realism. They only start to learn things when they find out that loan programs have been adjusted, when their parents get laid off, when their educational institutions just aren’table to meet state evaluation standards.

“My approach with them is simple,” he continues. “I don’t lie to them and tell them that America is going to treat a black man on a par with a white. In spite of what the numbers might say, I believe that there are fewer of us really in the mainstream than there were 20 years ago. In spite of what the numbers say, we’re losing ground.

“But I get tired of talking about it,” Butler said with a dismissive wave, standing up from his desk. “I’m sick of talking about the massacre. What happened here in 1968 is America. It’s that simple. But America doesn’t want to see itself for what it really is. America doesn’t really want to take care of its needy and downtrodden, because if it did, they’d start to change things. And America doesn’t want change.”

Around the corner from Butler’s office I found the new Kirkland W. Green Student Center, which houses a bowling alley, vending machines, conference rooms, the office of student publications, and the Student Government Association. I had an appointment to meet with a group of its officers.

The SGA  office turned out to be a small, bare room with three desks, a couch, and four chairs.

Here I met Maurice Washington, president of the association, who often often meets with friends and colleagues to talk about student life and steps they might take to improve it. On the Friday evening I visited, Washington was sitting with three other students: Denise Sewall, a freshman, Shawn Middleton, a sophomore, and Glenn Walters, a junior whowill be running for Washington’s position next year. After a while, our talk turns to the 1960s.

“What I think of right away,” said Middleton, “is the slaying of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Then maybe I think of the Orangeburg massacre, but only because I happen to be attending this college.”

“I used to sit around and talk about the ’60s with my older brothers and sisters,” said Washington, who told me he planned to work as an aide to Senator Strom Thurmond ater graduating. “It is hard to believe that something like that ever happened” – he gestures at the room around him – “happened here. But I’ll tell you what really brought that period home to me: a guy named John Stroman. He was here in the time of the massacre. One night we were all sitting around in this office, when an older guy pokes his head in the door and he comes in and starts talking with us.”

Washington was openly skeptical about the story of the massacre that is passed on to today’s students by the State College administration.

“We hear about it every year at the Memorial Lecture,” he said, “but frankly, I don’t believe what they tell me. They told you that the students organize the lecture every year, didn’t they? Well, let me tell you what happens. Every year the president of the SGA meets with Dr. Butler and a couple of the professors. Now, the student doesn’t know anything about the event, really, and he just sits here – and this happened to me – while they make all the decisions. Like who will talk, and about what. And last year – I was president then, too – I tried to get Stroman up on the platform. Would they let me? No way. Stroman’s coming up here now to meet you. You’ll see.”

When John Stroman entered the office a quarter of an hour later, he nodded familiarly to Middleton and Walters and shook hands with Washington and then me. The determined young activist of the 1960s was now 42, the father of three, and an eighth-grade math teacher. He was a man of medium height and build, with hair and a mustache just beginning to turn gray.

“The massacre?” he asked, when I brought up the subject. “The massacre, you know, was just a carry-over from what happened before, from what we used to call ‘the cause.’ ”

Stroman spoke energetically, but with a remarkable gentleness of manner. His recall of names and dates was prodigious, and as he spoke, often covering his eyes to concentrate, it became clear that for him 1968 was just yesterday.

“You see, back in 1967, students were upset about things like compulsory class attendance. You had to dress up on Sunday to eat your food. If you didn’t put on a tie you couldn’t eat. Freshmen were supposed to wear beanies and all this kind of garbage. Nine of us started what we called the student action committee. We tried to meet with the administration here, but they wouldn’t talk with us. We tried to work with the student government, but that didn’t work.”

He smiled at Maurice Washington. “No reflection on you all,” he teased, “but in those days they seemed to have the student government people tied down somehow, made deals with them.

In Stroman’s view, the quieter protests of 1967  show that  students were taking the lead in bringing about change. Student anger about the quality of education at State College had led to Turner’s rsignation and  a series of reforms instituted by Nance the following year. Student anger about Floyd’s bowling alley would finally get it desegregated.

As Ike Williams had told me earlier in the day: “It took a bunch of kids, young people who were naive and even a little bit ignorant, to wage war at the front, to sit down at those lunch counters, to ride at the front of the bus, to protest that war in Vietnam. Older people began to think that many young people – millions of them – couldn’t be all wrong. It was a period when the young led and the old followed.”

For Stroman, it was precisely that quality of the 1960s – the willingness of young people to put their lives and careers on the line, and the willingness of older people to shoot them down for it – that no one wanted to remember, much less commemorate: “You can go to all the Memorial Lectures you want,” he said, “but you’ll never hear about the people who were student leaders at the time. You’ll never hear about 1967. All you’ll see is President Nance with a tear in his eye, and all you’ll hear about is the ‘tragedy.’ What can you expect of people who would build a new administration building on holy ground – right where the shooting took place?”

At the time I spoke to him, Stroman had never been asked back to participate in one of the Memorial Lectures.  But he remained a link to the past in unofficial — and perhaps more effective ways.

“Many are the nights,” he told me, “when I just wander up here to the campus and walk around. This is my place. Like the first time I dropped in here and met Maurice. I just can’t forget, and I don’t intend to, even if they won’t let me up there on the platform for the Memorial Lecture.

“You know, they had me so uptight at one time – maybe that’s why I’m gray and crazy – they accused me of being responsible for those fellas’ being killed. Delano Middleton, Sam Hammond, and my buddy Henry Smith. Smitty. You know, like ‘That’s the one who got the guys killed in Orangeburg.’ That kind of stuff. I had to convince myself, talk to myself, that it wasn’t true.”

In the 26 years that have passed since I wrote this story, my mind has gone back many times to the two days and nights I spent in Orangburg, and especially to that evening in the SGA Office. Nothing haunts me more than the pain written on John Stroman’s face as he tried to shrug from his shoulders the blame for those deaths – a blame which so plainly lay elsewhere, with white racism. 

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