Columbia City of Women Honoree
Henrie Monteith Treadwell
Image courtesy The State Photograph Collection, Richland Library
...I grew up in a home where issues of social justice, civil rights, were always at the forefront. And it wasn’t that we just—that they—just talked about it…they were always planning, always doing something…and that really was the key for me. Some people can talk change, some people can make change.
-Henrie Monteith Treadwell, 2020
On September 11, 1963, Henrie Monteith walked through the doors of the University of South Carolina’s Osborne Administration Building and into history. She, along with Robert Anderson and James Solomon, broke the color line at the largest state-sponsored university, one that had held for nearly 90 years. Together they opened the door to future generations of black students. By Monteith’s side that day was her mother, schoolteacher and activist R. Rebecca Monteith, and her attorneys, Matthew J. Perry, Jr. and Ernest A. Finney, Jr. In a cruel bit of irony, both men were graduates of the South Carolina State University School of Law, a school created in 1947 for the sole purpose of maintaining segregation at the University of South Carolina. Nearly 10 years after the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional, a 17-year-old Monteith was finally turning the promise of change into reality.
Henrie Dobbins Monteith was born in 1946 to R. Rebecca Monteith in Columbia. They lived on farmland acquired by Rebecca Monteith’s parents, Rachel Hull and Henry C. Monteith, at the intersection of Mason Road and North Main Street. Just across the street was the Monteith School, founded by Rachel Hull Monteith and renamed in her honor in 1932. The Monteith’s farm served as both the origin of and the central base for civil rights activism. The family’s matriarch, Rachel Hull, was an early member of the Niagara Movement and the NAACP, and she exposed her seven surviving children to stories of anti-black violence published in The Crisis, the organization’s monthly magazine. Four became actively involved in the civil rights movement—Modjeska Monteith Simkins, Dr. Henry Dobbins Monteith, Emma Monteith Wheeler, and R. Rebecca Monteith. With the exception of Emma Wheeler, who moved to Michigan, all were regular fixtures in Henrie Monteith’s childhood.
At the time of Henrie’s birth, Rebecca Monteith was serving as both a school teacher and principal of the Monteith School, having succeeded her own mother. Just two years earlier, Rebecca Monteith petitioned the school district to equalize salaries for black and white teachers. Although she and another petitioner, Albert N. Thompson, Sr., were denied, the subsequent lawsuit filed by the NAACP became the organization’s second victory on teacher pay in South Carolina. Although Rebecca Monteith chose to send her daughter to Blessed Martin De Porres School, a private Catholic school, Henrie was well aware of the costs of activism. This included participating in the clothing and food drives led by her aunt, Modjeska Simkins, to help black families targeted for participating in the case Briggs v. Elliott, the Clarendon County case that became part of Brown v. Board of Education. For Monteith, “It was just what we did, and we did it all the time.”
With the passage of Brown, the Monteiths began making plans for the integration of the University of South Carolina. Henrie Monteith attended another private school in Virginia, she later recalled, in part because her mother “wanted to shield me until it was time to act.”
In May 1962, shortly before graduating at the top of her high school class, Monteith applied for admission at the university but was rejected. Her mother and aunt asked Matthew J. Perry, Jr., who was representing Harvey Gantt in a lawsuit against Clemson, to represent her. As both cases moved to trial, the violent integration at the University of Mississippi served as a sobering reminder of what might happen in South Carolina. An editorial in The Gamecock calling for law and order because “there’s no turning back the tide of integration” was met with a wide range of responses that reflected the attitudes of white South Carolinians. One called the piece “a breath of fresh air,” while others echoed the sentiment that calling “integration ‘progress’ is contrary to everything sacred in the South” and that giving up the fight was akin to “roll[ing] over and be[ing] trampled by the ever-growing, tyrannical, federal government.”
Still, by the time Monteith’s case reached the courtroom, the peaceful integration of Clemson left most of the public with the sense that the University of South Carolina would soon follow. At the trial, Perry called the university’s registrar, Rollin Godfrey, as the only witness. Godfrey confirmed that he had returned Monteith’s application based on her race, “pursuant to [his] instructions” from university officials. The court ruled in Monteith’s favor, and she spent the summer deciding if she would transfer from the College of Notre Dame, where she was already registered for the Fall 1963 semester. Because her case was a class-action suit, it opened up the opportunity for both James Solomon and Robert Anderson to successfully apply. Monteith submitted her new application on August 13. Less than two weeks later, her uncle’s home was bombed. Although there were fears that September 11 would devolve into violence, the university’s planning for “I-Day” ensured that registration was uneventful. For most students, integration was a reality they were forced to accept, and they did so begrudgingly and with little overt violence. All three students experienced harassment in the form of threatening calls, late-night door knocking, and racial slurs, but of the three, Robert Anderson experienced the most vitriol, in part because he was male and lived in the undergraduate dorms. He died in 2009, before the dedication of the USC Desegregation Garden.
Monteith later recalled their September 11 as “just one more small step on the path to equality for all citizens of South Carolina.” She spent the next two years focusing on her work and graduated in 1965. After completing graduate work at Boston University and Atlanta University and post-doctoral studies at Harvard University, Henrie Monteith Treadwell served as the program director at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Michigan. There she followed in her Aunt Modjeska’s footsteps, working to expand access to health care in the United States and Africa. Today she is affiliated with the Morehouse School of Medicine.
On September 11, 1963, Henrie Dobbins Monteith registered for classes at this building alongside two other African American students; together they became the first black students to enroll at the University of South Carolina since Reconstruction. Today, their historic contribution is celebrated in the adjacent Desegregation Garden.