“I learned over the years that racism is not something you’re born with, it’s a learned behavior. It’s like being brainwashed.” – Remus Harper
Remus Harper received his first noxious lesson of what it meant to be an African-American college athlete in the South on an autumn afternoon in 1968 along a nondescript stretch of Interstate 26 on the outskirts of Orangeburg, South Carolina.
The country was four years removed from the Civil Rights Act that legally snuffed out Jim Crow laws, three years north of the Voting Rights Act and 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 of 1968 progress 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 sat in the rear of the team station wagon fashioning his new white wristbands and headband. In a random act of housecleaning Harper 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.
Now imagine the poor kid, the class nerd, in grade school who walked the halls with a sign stuck to his back that read, “Kick Me!” After a series of kicks and healthy heap of humiliation the kid caught on and tore the paper off the back of his shirt.
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, oblivious to the message he was sending. One can only presume the thoughts and images that spooked observers zipping by on the interstate.
“Remus will you ask your brothers if they’re going to go with us or behind us,” said College of Charleston head coach Fred Daniels, tongue-in-cheek, as two African American men pulled alongside the vehicle carrying Harper.
Harper glanced over at the car beside him. He made eye contact with the two black, 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 this case it was a sign, a code for help. If the HELP sign didn’t make it clear, when Harper crossed his arms, it was surely clear.
The anonymous men sped off.
It’s not what it looked like — really. A car full of white men and one African American in the bed of the wagon, beside a moving billboard seemingly caged up and pleading for HELP, in 1968, in Orangeburg, on the heels of the infamous Orangeburg Massacre that claimed the lives of three blacks and injured 27 others earlier that same year.
What it looked like was pending horror.
Minutes later Daniels was stunned to see blue lights in his 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 his speedometer. He wasn’t speeding.
Daniels pulled over and jumped out of the vehicle, frightened by the prospects 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, Connecticut, 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 were less tense than they were in the South at the time. People were people, regardless of skin color. Daniels would go on to help integrate Duke University, both academically and athletically. He abhorred prejudice.
“What’s the problem?” Daniels asked.
“We just got word from a couple of black guys that you’re kidnapping this guy in the back,” said the officer, pointing to Harper.
“No, we’re the College of Charleston basketball team,” said Daniels.
“There are no black people at the College of Charleston,” barked the officer. “Don’t give me that. You better give me another story.”
“No, really, we’re actually the College of Charleston basketball team,” begged Daniels.
“I don’t know what you are, and I don’t know where you’re going, and I don’t know what you’re going to do with this n—— here in the back, but I’m asking you not to do it in Orangeburg County,” charged the officer.
“That was the mentality,” said Harper, 40 years later.
Welcome to Remus Harper’s christening as the first African-American student-athlete at the College of Charleston. The Orangeburg incident was the most egregious, but certainly not Harper’s first run-in with prejudice. He was born into racism.
Wrong place, wrong time
Timing is everything.
Born in the Lowcountry, Remus Harper was reared in the fifties. Jim Crow laws were still in practice. As a boy he remembers using a separate door and a separate waiting room when visiting the doctor, signs directed him to drink from a separate water fountain, the once-popular Woolworth’s lunch counter always served whites first and sitting on the train tracks outside the North 52 Drive Inn, watching movies because theatres were “white only.”
Harper’s exposure to racism were both subtle and blatant, ignorant and inventive, clever and crude, mental and physical, spoken and written, young and old, male and female, shouted and spat out between dribbles on the court, whispered under every corner street lamp and waved off at every lunch counter in the South.
“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.”
Remus 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,” said Harper. “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.”
(Dis) integration with intent
The College of what?
The College of Charleston.
In South Carolina.
“Never heard of it,” said Harper.
Harper graduated from Bonds-Wilson High School in North Charleston valedictorian of his class, geographically less than 10 miles from the College of Charleston. If Harper didn’t make the statement with such a serious tone, it would be easy to mistake the quip as sarcasm.
The College of Charleston, then a private university, had a modest enrollment of 432 full-time students or, more precisely, 432 white students, zero black students. The numbers were no coincidence. Through 1967, the College of Charleston, a private university until 1971, made an effort to exclusively recruit white students.
David Goin, a pint-sized, bespectacled, inexperienced college graduate was the lone admissions counselor at the College of Charleston. His recruiting tools consisted of two single sheets of paper, one titled “All white High Schools in Charleston County,” the second, “All white High Schools in South Carolina.”
Fred Daniels interviewed for the Director of Admissions position in the summer of 1968. With then president Walter Coppedge out of town, Daniels was treated to the ten-cent tour of the campus. “There’s nothing to see,” said Daniels, remembering the visit. “There was one building. I had no idea. You walked out of the back door you could get hit by a car.”
Daniels and Goin then killed time, talking about recruiting. That’s when Daniels first saw the recruiting lists. He shook his head and thought, this is not a mailing list it’s an instruction. Before his plane left Charleston that afternoon, Daniels was convinced. He couldn’t think of any circumstance in which he’d even consider returning to Charleston. Daniels returned home and told his wife, “There’s no way in the world (I’d take the job). We just got Duke integrated.”
“Duke had no black students. Duke had no black players. So I became the guy,” said Daniels. “My job was to go out and get kids, better kids and black kids. Finding kids who were admissible was not hard, finding kids who would come into that environment was difficult.”
A few days passed and the phone rang. It was College of Charleston president Walter Coppedge.
“How was your visit?” he asked Daniels.
Daniels assured Coppedge his visit went smoothly, but said, “I just can’t do it. I really appreciate it, but I just can’t do it, it’s not in me.”
“Would you tell me why?” Coppedge asked.
Daniels told Coppedge he was offended by the recruiting methods.
Coppedge told Daniels as president he had his word, the doors would be open to African Americans, and he’d be able to recruit – students, not athletes — without parsing race. He had the president’s “full support.”
Daniels eventually accepted the offer and, that summer, he moved his wife and children into a modest house on Ashley Avenue, not far the College of Charleston campus.
‘ I was not impressed’
“He was the perfect person to do this – perfect … There’s nobody I ever met at the college that ever met Remus and one, didn’t like him, and two, thought he was black.” – Fred Daniels
It may have been the first time an African American ever stepped into President Water Coppedge’s house – unless they were hired to clean it. In the summer of 1968 Coppedge hosted a recruitment event at his home, guidance counselors from Charleston County arrived and Daniels picked their brains, looking for quality students.
That’s where Daniels first remembers hearing the name Remus Harper. A guidance counselor told Daniels she had an exception student – and athlete. Harper was a team captain in both baseball and basketball and class valedictorian. He was a clearly a leader, a young man who could handle adversity, even thrive in it. He was exactly what Daniels was looking for – black students, not basketball players.
Before the Fall of 1968 Coppedge was gone and Ted Stern was named the 16th president of the College of Charleston. Known for his disdain for injustice along racial lines while with the Navy, Stern was confronted about integration during his interview. When asked what he would do if an African American applied to the college, without missing a beat Stern said he would review the application the same as any other.
“Mr. Stern was a masterful administrator,” said Daniels.
It was a tipping point for the College of Charleston – and Daniels. Stern approached Daniels 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 a few years back, 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. It was a buffer to another position-in-waiting at newly formed Virginia Commonwealth University, where he would settle down with his wife and family. Maybe this coaching thing wasn’t such a bad idea after all. It could be fun, at least for one year.
Daniels would lead all recruiting efforts during the spring and summer and during basketball season, in the fall and winter he would send his assistant David Goin on recruiting road trips while he manned the office during the day and coached the basketball team.
“What they didn’t know was, I was going to go get me a Negro,” added Daniels. “They knew I had already enrolled a couple of black kids (students).”
Once it became official, Daniels called Bonds-Wilson High School looking for Remus Harper. Now a basketball coach, Daniels wanted to me Harper. Remember, team captain, valedictorian, leader.
“He was the perfect person to do this – perfect,” said Daniels. “He’s bright, clever, entertaining and funny. He was courageous, a solid student – never threatened. He got in and got out, no problem. There’s nobody I ever met at the college that ever met Remus and one, didn’t like him, and two, thought he was black.”
Harper was treated to the grand tour of the College of Charleston. Daniels boasted about the school’s history and academic standards which followed with “a tour of the main campus where the cistern is and the old gym on George Street,” remembers Harper.
“That’s it!” said Daniels.
“Say what?” asked Harper.
I am not going to the College of Charleston, Harper thought. “I was not impressed,” he would say years later.
“He made it clear that he saw no value in this,” added Daniels. “He wasn’t looking to be the guy who integrates the athletic program at the College of Charleston.”
Fred Daniels believed Harper was the perfect person to integrate the College of Charleston. Remus Harper had his own plan: attend South Carolina State University (with his friends), get his education and bypass all the social discomfort that accompanied blacks into universities across the country in the sixties.
“My guidance counselor said you have very little knowledge of the historical significance of this,” said Harper. “You’re going to go to the College of Charleston. My mom and my guidance counselor said yes for me.”
The Dark, Deep South
“When we went on the road it was tough, tough … these redneck son-of-a-guns the farther we went up I-26 were tough.” – Fred Daniels, former College of Charleston men’s basketball coach
Before the team stepped outside of Charleston, before the first person could utter a distasteful word, before the first fan would purse their lips and spat on Harper and his teammates, before white restaurant owners could close the doors in the face of the College of Charleston, Fred Daniels spoke.
The message was simple: It’s going to happen. Daniels knew it. Harper knew it. The otherwise all-white team must 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 see on television or the sound bites veiled in racism they’d hear on the radio, no, this was reality. It was going to be in-you-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.
“You can dislike these people all you want, but you can’t under any circumstances, you can not make us look like bullies or worse rednecks than they are,” Daniels said.
“These were the sixties, tumultuous times among racial lines,” added Harper. “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 met the road without hesitation. Wherever the team traveled, whenever a whiff of injustice simmered, Daniels exploited the opportunity to rub the injustice in the faces of those “redneck son-of-a-guns.”
Harper remembers the team caravan pulling off at diners and Daniels telling the team, “Let me go in and see if they’re open.” If the owner saw Remus, the restaurant mysteriously closed. And for those who granted the team access, well, they paid the price for all those “redneck son-of-a-guns” that came before them. Daniels always sent Harper to the register to pay the bill. The look on the person’s face at the cash register was often priceless, and Harper was milking it for everything it was worth.
“I’d be at the counter looking around at the guys, flipping twenty’s down,” he said.
‘It was the biggest coaching mistake I ever made’
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, with permission and approval from the Stern and the college athletic director, he invited Elizabeth City State University to participate in the season-opening weekend tournament.
Daniels had no idea just how good the ECSU Vikings were, until they hit the floor.
“We got our asses kicked by these guys,” he said.
With the College of Charleston trailing by 12 point at the end of the first half, the team gathered in the locker room. With his team gasping for breathe, Daniels offered little hope.
“We’re going to have to start playing some man-to-man, these guys are pretty quick,” he said.
“That’s a good idea coach, these n—— are scared of us,” said Harper, the only African-American on the College of Charleston roster.
“I’m not too sure about that Remus,” responded the coach.
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,” remembered Daniels. “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.”
Daniels learned hard and fast lesson about Elizabeth City. The team would finish their season a semi-finalist in the NAIA tournament. Three of Elizabeth City’s starters would later get drafted by the American Basketball Association (ABA).
The 1968 season opener against a powerful opponent, featuring an entire roster of African-American student-athletes, ushered integration into Charleston. It didn’t come quietly. They arrived screaming and left tournament champs.
“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 — and there are pictures. It wasn’t like we snuck a Negro in.”
Stumbling blocks to stepping stones
“It was a rich experience, but not without trial.” – Remus Harper
“Why are you recruiting blacks to this school?” one professor asked Daniels. “You know they can’t pass the courses. They will never pass my course.”
It angered Daniels. The memory still does. “I’ve never met any white people that are ‘picked on,’ or that are prejudiced against, but I’ve known some black people that are,” he said.
Remus Harper’s girlfriend Tanya, now his wife, landed in that professors class not long after. She knew the history. It would be an uphill battle to just finish the class, let alone pass the course. By the end of the semester she had “aced” the class said Harper. But it didn’t end at that.
“After the final she wrote him a note and commended him for his teaching ability and that she thoroughly enjoyed taking his class,” said Harper. The professor contacted Daniels soon after and confessed he made “… the statement he made was the biggest mistake he’d made in his life.”
“You’re going to find people who aren’t going to change no matter what,” said Harper. “Then you’ll find there are people who will change if they know who you are.
“It wasn’t an easy time,” said Harper. “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.”
It was a lesson Harper could never learn in the classrooms on George Street in downtown Charleston. Prejudice and racism were not on the College of Charleston course list. There is no formal education to prepare a person for that.