Columbia City of Women Honoree
Alice Norwood Spearman Wright
Alice Norwood Spearman at a South Carolina Council on Human Relations meeting, 1955. Image courtesy The State Newspaper Photograph Archive, Richland Library
We need heroes and heroines to cross racial lines in the further desegregation of public facilities.
-Alice Norwood Spearman, The State, September 22, 1964
As the executive director and most liberal voice of the South Carolina Council on Human Relations (SCCHR) from 1954 until 1967, Alice Norwood Spearman was almost unquestionably the most influential white woman in South Carolina’s civil rights movement. Remembered by Modjeska Monteith Simkins as a “vigilant and almost radical spirit,” Spearman, who openly and fearlessly condemned racial segregation, proved to be a powerful ally to Black activists due to her ability to navigate the white political and social landscape of the mid-twentieth century.
Alice Buck Norwood was born in 1902 into an affluent family in Marion, South Carolina. Though her mother instilled in her the gender and class assumptions of elite, white Southern society, Spearman always desired to learn more about the world. She had her first chance while a student at Converse College, whose student YWCA chapter had an interracial committee and did service work alongside young women working in the mills. After earning a master’s degree from Columbia Teachers College in New York, she traveled the world from 1930-1932, teaching in multiple countries.
She returned to South Carolina during the Great Depression and found her family’s economic circumstances drastically reduced. Norwood was able to gain an appointment as the state’s first female relief director, ensuring working-class men and women from Marion County received unemployment wages funded by the Federal Emergency Relief Act. Spearman later became the state supervisor of education and federal programs and adult worker education. Her experiences establishing relief programs for the working class led Spearman to identify as a “dyed-in-the-wool socialist” who considered herself left-of-center within the New Deal.
In 1935, she married Eugene H. Spearman and had a son. Alice Norwood Spearman soon joined the South Carolina Committee on Interracial Cooperation (later the South Carolina division of the Southern Regional Council (SRC)). The SRC was unique in its emphasis on interracial cooperation and served as a unified voice of progress for social reform. Although finances forced her to take a job with the South Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1951, she was able to return to civil rights work full time in 1954 as the first executive direction of the SC SRC, which less than a year later was renamed the South Carolina Council on Human Relations.
Under her leadership, SCCHR’s membership rose from 78 members to more than 500 in the first year. However, a sustained white backlash in response to the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional, reached a fever pitch following its subsequent 1955 decree that schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” A spate of state laws, new white supremacist groups, and the threat of retribution by employers resulted in a greatly diminished membership base by 1957. The late 1950s were also dangerous for Spearman, whose SCCHR office experienced break-ins and repeated demands to vacate; one intruder assaulted Spearman and left her bleeding in the office.
By 1959, though, Spearman had made significant connections with national Black organizations, including the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) by attending meetings, conferences, and even protests, including the 1960 sit-in at Greenville Airport. In February of that year, Spearman called for the SCCHR to support Black student-led efforts to desegregate public spaces statewide, causing a massive schism along racial lines. Spearman’s view ultimately won out during a closed executive session, and when student sit-ins began the following month, Spearman served as a key behind-the-scenes collaborator. As Simkins later recalled, Spearman “has never appeared to waver…she was very close to the movement all through the student marches.”
Throughout the sit-in movement, Spearman also brought together bi-racial groups of graduate and undergraduate students in “safe” meetings. One such meeting united more than 200 Black and white college students in the immediate aftermath of the May 1961 Freedom Rides. These meetings helped to lessen tensions on previously-all-white college campuses on the cusp of integration. In 1962 and 1963, these student groups also worked with the SCCHR in support of restaurants that had desegregated their lunch counters and were facing white boycotts. Finally, in 1963 the SCCHR celebrated with its first integrated banquet at the Downtowner Motor Inn on Main Street.
Spearman’s final years with the SCCHR after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act proved to be her most productive. Under her direction, the SCCHR took part in the Voter Education Project, encouraged compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and developed programs targeting illiteracy, lack of job skills, and rural and urban poverty. An appointee to the South Carolina Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission, Spearman in 1964 was awarded an honorary doctorate from historically Black Morris College in Sumter. At the time of her retirement, the SCCHR membership number 1,335 state-wide.
In 1970, Spearman married the attorney and former Southern Regional Council president Marion A. Wright. In her later years, she received numerous awards, including some from previously segregated local organizations like the YWCA. In 1972, that recently integrated organization awarded both Spearman and her longtime compatriot Modjeska Monteith Simkins with the Human Relations Award for their “contribution to the people of South Carolina toward the elimination of racism.” Alice Spearman Wright died in Columbia on March 12, 1989.
“City Relations Council Meets,” The State (Columbia, SC), September 22, 1964.
“Human Relations Award,” The State (Columbia, SC), January 30, 1972.
McDonough, Julia Anne. Men and Women of Good Will: A History of the Commission
on Interracial Cooperation and the Southern Regional Council, 1919-1954, (University of Virginia, 1993).
Simkins, Modjeska Monteith. Interview with Jacqueline Dowd Hall, July 28, 1976. Interview G-0056-2.
Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Accessed on August 17, 2021: https://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/G-0056-2/menu.html
Synnott, Marcia G. “Alice Buck Norwood Spearman Right,” in South Carolina Women:
Their Lives and Times, Volume 3, ed. Marjorie Julian Spruill, Valinda W. Littlefield, and
Joan Marie Johnson, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012).
In 1963, Alice Norwood Spearman presided over the first integrated South Carolina Council on Human Relations banquet held at this previously white-only hotel and dining space. During the previous year she worked closely with student groups and SCCHR members to visit and support businesses who willingly desegregated their lunch counters, many of which had faced substantial backlash from white customers.