Breaking Down the Walls: Long Known for Its Insularity, the Citadel Is Taking Steps to Shake That Image with New African Americans Studies Program, Civil Rights Conference

Article excerpt

No one was surprised when Dr. Marcus Cox's Ph.D. in history from Northwestern led to job offers from Ohio State and Illinois State universities. But it came as quite a surprise to his friends when Cox passed on those schools to go to The Citadel --a small Southern military college known outside its home region mostly for spending a reported $15 million to fight the admission of women to the cadet corps.

Cox's explanation is elegant in its simplicity: "I wanted to make an impact, and what better place than The Citadel?" he says. It was the smallest school of the three that made him an offer, with the smallest number of African American students and the smallest Black faculty. "In most cases, they had never even offered the courses I would be teaching."

Plus, says Cox, a Louisiana native who did his undergraduate work at Southern University, "I wanted a warm climate. Coming from Louisiana and then living in Evanston (Ill.), I really liked the weather in Charleston."

Cox is heading into his fourth year at The Citadel, and the young assistant professor is winning kudos not just from students, but also from colleagues, alumni and the broader community, for crafting, with his department's full support, an African American studies minor. The first in the school's 162-year history, it kicks off this fall.

"This is being called a significant change, and it is," says Dr. Winfred B. "Bo" Moore, chairman of the history department and an enthusiastic supporter of the program.

"It's obviously been a need the college has had--the community also. And it's a need, for a variety of reasons, not all of them good, we have been slow to try to meet. But in recent years, we've been very fortunate in hiring people whose specialty lies in various disciplines of the African American experience. The group is not large, but it's a viable beginning. We have the critical mass to begin making a difference," Moore says.

Of course, some might say there's nothing much new in the school's initiative. African American studies has, over its more than 30-year history, grown into one of the more noteworthy success stories of modern higher education. It's literally everywhere, and the institution that doesn't offer a minor or a program risks being seen as out of step with the mainstream.

But that's precisely the point, observers say. For much of its history, The Citadel--and the city where it was born, Charleston, S.C.,--has loudly and proudly followed the beat of a different drummer. To say that Confederate identity has historically been strong at the school is something of an understatement. The Citadel was founded in response to the Denmark Vessey slave rebellion. And for most of its history, the walls of the campus have seemed well-nigh unapproachable to the African American communities that lived within their shadow.

"The college was, for many years, quite insular--and quite happy in its insularity," says Moore, adding, "That's not been a good thing."

Norma Hoffman Davis, 63, grew up near the campus as the daughter of a Charleston physician. Her assessment is more blunt: "It had a reputation for being a racist place," she says, and it was a reputation the school worked to live up to. Once, she recalls, she and her brother and cousin dared to ride their bikes within The Citadel's walls. "The cadets shot at us with BB guns," she says.

Bernard Fielding, 71, a retired probate judge whose family runs one of the oldest African American-owned funeral homes in the city, says he never rode his bike through the campus as a child. He didn't dare.

Indeed, on the few occasions that he took visiting family members to see "the West Point of the South," he laughs, "I was never on foot or on a bicycle. I was in my automobile --with the windows rolled up."

Such stories ring true to Dr. Larry Ferguson, the oldest living African American graduate of The Citadel. …


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