Stumbling Blocks, Stepping Stones 

Remus Harper looks at his time as the first African-American athlete at the College of Charleston

click to enlarge BEN WILLIAMS

On an autumn afternoon along a nondescript stretch of Interstate 26 on the outskirts of Orangeburg, Remus Harper received his first noxious lesson on what it meant to be an African-American college athlete in the South.

It was 1968. The country was four years removed from the Civil Rights Act that had legally snuffed out Jim Crow laws, and it was two years after Don Haskins' Texas Western all-black starting lineup upset Kentucky to win the men's NCAA basketball championship. But by the spring, progress had soured following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and locally, the racially-charged massacre in Orangeburg. Race relations were a raw nerve.

As the College of Charleston basketball team caravan plunged through the state on an early season road trip, Harper was sitting in the rear of the team station wagon fashioning his new white wristbands and headband. In a random act of housecleaning he picked up a cardboard sign lying on the floor of the wagon, pressed it to the glass, wedged it into the window frame, and returned to marveling at his wristbands.

From the outside of the station wagon looking in, the sign was a one-word caption: It read, "HELP," ... and there sat Harper beside it, preoccupied with his wristbands.

A car with two African-American men pulled alongside the vehicle carrying Harper and his teammates. "Remus, will you ask your brothers if they're going to go with us or behind us," College of Charleston head coach Fred Daniels said, tongue in cheek.

Harper glanced over at the car beside him. He made eye contact with the two black men, never cracking a smile. He then lifted his arms, crossed his forearms at his wrists, forming an "X" across his chest. It was a symbol of the times; it meant black power. In some cases, it was a code for help.

The men in the car sped off.

Minutes later Daniels was stunned to see blue lights in the rear view mirror. His mind instinctively went down the checklist: registration, license, inspection, tires, tail lights, head lights, everything was in working order. He looked at the speedometer. He wasn't speeding.

Daniels pulled over and jumped out of the vehicle, frightened by the prospect of what might happen next.

He knew what happened on that infamous February night in Orangeburg. Who didn't? This was the South, not Oakville, Conn., the small factory town where Daniels grew up near two black families, the only two black families in Oakville. Daniels knew both of them. Race relations there were less tense than they were in the South at the time. For him, people were people, regardless of skin color. He abhorred prejudice.

"What's the problem?" Daniels asked.

According to Daniels, the officer pointed at Harper and said that they received a call from a couple of black guys claiming that Daniels had a kidnapped black man in the back of his vehicle.

"No, we're the College of Charleston basketball team," Daniels said.

Daniels says that the officer then barked back, saying that there were no black people at the College of Charleston. He then asked Daniels for another story.

"No, really, we're actually the College of Charleston basketball team," Daniels begged.

Then the officer said that he didn't know who Daniels and the team were, and he didn't know where they were going, and that if they were going to do something with the "nigger" in the back of the car, they shouldn't do it in Orangeburg County.

While the incident outside of Orangeburg was certainly not the first encounter with racism that Remus Harper had ever experienced in his life, it was certainly one of the most egregious he would experience as the first African-American student-athlete at the College of Charleston.

A Sign of the Times

Born in the Lowcountry, Remus Harper was reared when the Jim Crow laws were still in practice. He remembers using a separate waiting room when visiting the doctor. He remembers the signs directing him to drink from a separate water fountain. He remembers the once-popular diner lunch counter where the whites were always served first. He remembers sitting on the train tracks outside the drive-in watching movies because they were white only.

"There was a place not far from my house, a diner. They sold the best hamburgers, but we couldn't go in," remembers Harper. "We had to go to the back door and order."

Harper would spend his days playing basketball in his off-white Converse Chuck Taylor high tops on the asphalt courts at the local playground and dreaming of being the next Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, or, his personal favorite, Hal Greer. Even then the veil would open and racism would expose its ugly head.

"We played football or basketball with the white guys," Harper says. "The ironic part of it was, when they got with their peers, we were ostracized. It really raised the level of hostility because you knew as a person you were being looked upon as being less than."

First Impressions

In the summer of 1968, Fred Daniels interviewed for the director of admissions position at the College of Charleston, a school with a modest, all-white enrollment.

During a visit, Daniels was treated to the 10-cent tour of the campus. At the time there was nothing to see, Daniels says. "There was one building," he says. "I had no idea. You walked out of the back door, you could get hit by a car."

It was at this time that Daniels claims that he saw two recruiting lists for the college, one listing all-white high schools in Charleston County and the other, all-white high schools in the state. He says that he shook his head and thought, this is not a mailing list, it's an instruction.

click to enlarge BEN WILLIAMS

Before his plane left Charleston that afternoon, Daniels was convinced that he couldn't think of any circumstance in which he'd even consider returning to Charleston. When he returned home, he told his wife, "There's no way in the world (I'd take the job). We just got Duke integrated."

Daniels played a role in the integration of that prestigious North Carolina school; he was tasked with finding recruits. "Duke had no black students. Duke had no black players," Daniels says. "Finding kids who were admissible was not hard; finding kids who would come into that environment was difficult."

A few days passed after his visit. The phone rang. It was College of Charleston President Walter Coppedge.

According to Daniels, Coppedge asked the future coach about his visit. Daniels assured Coppedge his visit went smoothly, but he told the college president, "I just can't do it. I really appreciate it, but I just can't do it, it's not in me."

Coppedge wanted to know why.

Daniels told Coppedge he was offended by the recruiting methods.

Daniels says Coppedge told him that the doors to the College of Charleston would be open to African Americans, and that Daniels would able be to recruit students — not just athletes — without parsing race.

Daniels accepted the offer and, that summer, he moved his wife and children into a modest house on Ashley Avenue, not far from the College of Charleston campus.

The first time Daniels heard the name Remus Harper he was at a recruitment event at the home of President Coppedge. It was there that a guidance counselor told Daniels she had an exceptional student and an athlete.

Harper was a team captain in both baseball and basketball; he was also the class valedictorian. He was clearly a leader, a young man who could handle adversity, even thrive in it. He was exactly the type of student Daniels was looking for.

click to enlarge remus4.jpg

Before the fall of 1968, Coppedge was gone, and Ted Stern was named president of the College of Charleston. Shortly after, Daniels was approached by Stern about coaching the College of Charleston basketball team. The inquiry caught Daniels off guard.

He wasn't a basketball coach; he was the admissions director. Sure he had dabbled in it, coaching and teaching for two years at Sewanee Military Academy, but that hardly made him an experienced basketball coach.

But Daniels had plans of his own: one year at the College of Charleston and he'd be gone. He was waiting for a position at Virginia Commonwealth University to open. Once there, he planned to settle down with his family. Maybe this coaching thing wasn't such a bad idea after all. It could be fun, he thought, at least for one year. That year eventually turned into a 41-year career at the Lowcountry school. He retired in 2008 after holding a variety of administrative positions, last of which was a post as the senior vice president for executive administration.

Once it became official, Daniels called Bonds-Wilson High School looking for Remus Harper. "He was the perfect person to do this," Daniels says. "He's bright, clever, entertaining and funny. He was courageous, a solid student."

After reaching Harper, Daniels took the student-athlete on a tour of the College of Charleston, including stops at the Cistern and the old George Street gym. Daniels boasted about the school's history and academic standards. During the tour, Harper decided that the college wasn't the place for him. "I was not impressed," Harper says.

"He made it clear that he saw no value in this," Daniels says. "He wasn't looking to be the guy who integrates the athletic program at the College of Charleston."

Remus Harper had his own plans — he wanted to attend South Carolina State University with his friends. At that all-black school, Harper wanted to get his education and bypass all problems that African-American students at other newly integrated universities were experiencing. But the decision, in some ways, was not his to make.

"My guidance counselor said you have very little knowledge of the historical significance of this," Harper says. "You're going to go to the College of Charleston. My mom and my guidance counselor said yes for me."

On the Road

The message was simple: It's going to happen. Daniels knew it. Harper knew it. The nearly all-white team had to come to grips with what they were about to face: racism. These wouldn't be the distant, harmless video bites detached from reality they'd seen on television; no, this was reality. It was going to be in-your-face, angry, redneck son-of-a-guns from the Deep South, hootin', hollerin', stompin', and spittin' at them. It was going to be ugly. But Daniels told his players to focus on the game and ignore the bigots.

"You can dislike these people all you want, but you can't under any circumstances — you cannot — make us look like bullies or worse rednecks than they are," Daniels said.

click to enlarge _coachd.jpg

Looking back on those years, Harper says, "These were the '60s, tumultuous times among racial lines. One class of people looked down on another class of people. We stepped into what we called 'their class.' We had to feel the brunt of what they dish out. You expected it, but there were people who were around you that didn't tolerate it, and they expressed their discontent."

Daniels and his team met the road without hesitation. Harper remembers the team caravan pulling off at diners and Daniels telling the team, "Let me go in and see if they're open." The reason: Sometimes if the owner saw Harper, the restaurant mysteriously closed.

And on those occasions when the team did eat at a restaurant, Harper was always the one who went to the register to pay the bill. The look on the person's face at the cash register was often priceless.

"I'd be at the counter looking around at the guys, flipping 20s down," Harper says.

Stepping Stones

This was not the way Fred Daniels wanted to start his coaching career at the College of Charleston, but he had no one to blame but himself. In one of his first acts as head coach, Daniels invited the Elizabeth City State University Vikings to participate in the season-opening weekend tournament. He had no idea just how good the all-black squad was, until they hit the floor.

"We got our asses kicked by these guys," he says.

With the College of Charleston trailing by 12 points at the end of the first half, the team gathered in the locker room. With his team gasping for breath, Daniels offered little hope.

Daniels was right. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Elizabeth City turned a 12-point lead into a 60-point blowout. "By the last play of the game, they're still trapping us at half court," Daniels remembers. "That was my first college coaching experience. It was one event that changed everything more than Remus did. It was also the biggest mistake I ever made coaching."

That may be so, but with that 1968 season opener against the Vikings and their roster of African-American student-athletes, a new era was ushered into Charleston. "Here's a black team playing the College of Charleston — in Charleston," said Daniels. "It was on TV. It was in the newspaper — black guys running up and down the court at the College of Charleston."

Looking back, Remus Harper notes that his days as the first African-American student-athlete was difficult. "It wasn't an easy time," says Harper, who worked for GMAC for three-decades before being called to the ministry in 1986; he is now the pastor of Mt.Carmel AME Church in Moncks Corner. "It taught me how to deal with the real world. You grow up fast. To walk into a gym and be shouted at and called names because I had a darker skin color. We bleed the same color. It was mind boggling at times, but we turned these stumbling blocks into stepping stones."


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