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First Person > Robert Romer

Robert Romer - 1969/1970: Protests and state troops at Voorhees College



As Robert Romer remembers, “I think that it was partly in reaction to [Martin Luther] King’s assassination, and also a reaction, frankly, to listening to some of my liberal colleagues at Amherst College pontificate about the race problem I decided that…I wanted to do something else.” He decided to leave Amherst College to teach physics at a college of all black students in rural South Carolina…

Learn more about Robert Romer: View a timeline of his life and listen to his full interview.

Stories by this speaker



file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/romer1969_yearbook, alt: Voorhees faculty headshots from yearbook.

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These yearbook photos are of Physics Professor Robert Romer and other Voorhees College faculty members.

Photograph from the 1969/1970 Voorhees College Yearbook. Copyright Voorhees College.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/romer1969_students, alt: Bernie Dingle with students

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This photograph is of Bernie Dingle teaching physics to Voorhees College students. The year before Dr. Romer began teaching at Voorhees, Mr. Dingle had eased tensions during an armed student protest on the Voorhees campus. Robert Romer relates that Bernie Dingle, "persuaded the kids to come out and get on the bus and go to jail and put down their guns 'cause otherwise someone was going to get killed, and they followed him out and on to the bus." The next year the Voorhees College administration fired Bernie Dingle and four other teachers. This action resulted in another round of student protests.

Photograph from the 1969/1970 Voorhees College Yearbook. Copyright Voorhees College.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/romer1969_home, alt: snapshot of Romers' home at Voorhees College

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This is the Romers' Voorhees College home. In the spring of 1970, the administration closed the campus as a result of student protests. It was a tense time, and Robert Romer describes how troops searched for students in his home:

Well, the troops did come about three o'clock in the morning. It was cold, about the first of February, I think. There's a pounding on the door and I go down in my pajamas and there's a bunch of soldiers, with guns, with bayonets. And here's a guy with a bayonet pointed at my stomach. I still sort of have nightmares occasionally. It's the middle of the night, it's cold, I'm holding up my pajamas with the one hand, there's a bayonet at my stomach and [laughs] and the – it wasn't funny – and the sergeant says, "We're going to search your house." So I did what I was told to do by the ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, I said "I...," "I deny you permission to search the house." And then he says to his troops, "Search the house, men." And so I said again, "I refuse to give you permission to search my house." And then I stood aside, I mean, what am I gonna do?

Photograph Courtesy of Robert Romer.

Story Clip #1:

The decision to teach in the South

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Audio also available in MP3 format

I think it was partly in reaction to King's assassination, and also a reaction, frankly, to listening to some of my liberal colleagues at Amherst College pontificate about the race problem I decided that—I wasn't really sure I wanted to go on spending the rest of my life teaching, basically, all male, mostly quite upper class, almost exclusively white, as it turned out, at that time, students, and I wanted to do something else. Actually I was negotiating going to Uganda to teach for a while, and then the possibility came up of a black college that a friend of mine knew about in South Carolina that was looking for a physics professor to come and start a physics program and, I thought, you know, anybody can go hold a candle and walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, but what I've been educated to do and what I've practiced doing is, I teach physics and if there's something to do where physics teaching will help, I should do that. So I went with the idea originally of maybe making a permanent career change from Amherst College to a black college in the South. We packed up and we went to teach physics, to start the teaching of physics, at a very small, church–related black college in rural South Carolina, within the swamps about half way between Columbia and Charleston, and to teach physics. And, the spring before we went, after we'd already decided to go – that would have been the spring of '69 – it was [a] quite violent racial protest in the country. There was a famous picture that appeared in the New York Times that spring with a Cornell black student holding a rifle on the steps of the administration building. That's in Ithaca, New York. At the same time in Denmark, South Carolina, this little town, a significant number of black students had their own protest. They occupied the administration building and the library and they had guns, and the South Carolina Highway Patrol arrived and/or the National Guard—I forget which—it wasn't federal, it was state troops and there was real opportunity there for somebody to die. This isn't Ithaca, New York; this is South Carolina. In fact the year before that, several black kids had been killed by the South Carolina Highway Patrol on the campus of South Carolina State College about twenty miles away. What was going to be my college that spring; nobody got killed. A rather heroic black science teacher persuaded the kids to come out and get on the bus and go to jail and put down their guns 'cause otherwise someone was going to get killed, and they followed him out and on to the bus. It was kind of miraculous that nobody got killed, so we read about this from afar. So we went and we didn't know what the year was going to be like, and I started teaching physics. And, of course, that was an experience in itself, because in the time I had taught at Amherst, I'm quite sure I had never had more than one black student in a class at a time. So obviously I never had any trouble remembering who that person was. All of a sudden I've got an introductory physics class of sixty, seventy students and they're all black, and all of a sudden I've got to start learning ways to tell black people apart. And it works the other way, too, by the way. There was – I'm not very tall, I'm five–seven, kind of chunky and I have, I had at the time a rather full beard there was another visiting white Northern professor teaching history there that year who was about six–feet–six, no beard, very skinny, and the students confused us—all white folks look alike. It was quite a change in the teaching experience from Amherst; not only were the students a hundred percent black instead of ninety–nine–point–nine percent white, they're also half women and half men. Whereas at Amherst at the time it was before we had coeducation at all at Amherst—all the Amherst students were and always had been male—but the level of their basic ability in arithmetic, and reading and writing was not good. Almost all of them were graduates of segregated rural South Carolina high schools, and in the late sixties, that was not a really high quality education. I think I was pretty good by that time at teaching physics to Amherst students with their background, but I was starting all over again with students at a really different entering level. I'm not sure I really did any good teaching physics but then [gap in tape]

Story Clip #2:

The Voorhees campus is closed after a student protest—soldiers search the Romer home

Audio also available in MP3 format

The year sort of erupted when, all of a sudden, really in the middle of the year the administration summarily fired five teachers, including the guy who the previous spring had heroically prevented the bloodshed, 'cause the administration was somehow, they were convinced that he must have started the whole uprising and they wanted to get rid of him, and he was a black guy. He was by no means an Uncle Tom; he was very much of a pacifist. He was also standing up for black rights, and the administration, who—the administration was all black, [but] they were subordinated to a white board of trustees. Students protested the firing of this one teacher in particular. They called for a boycott of classes. The school administration were a panic; they thought there might be a repeat of the previous year's thing where students had guns. They declared the campus closed; they called for help from the governor. We had a little warning that this was likely to happen, but that the campus was going to be occupied by the troops; but one morning, in fact the, the night before the troops came, I called the American Civil Liberties Union branch in South Carolina for advice on what to do if people came to our house. 'Cause our house was right on the edge of campus. We rented it from the college, we considered it our house; as it turned out, the college and the troops considered it as part of the campus. So I asked for advice on what to do if the troops came. Well, the troops did come about three o'clock in the morning. It was cold, about the first of February, I think. There's a pounding on the door and I go down in my pajamas and there's a bunch of soldiers, with guns, with bayonets. And here's a guy with a bayonet pointed at my stomach. I still sort of have nightmares occasionally. It's the middle of the night, it's cold, I'm holding up my pajamas with the one hand, there's a bayonet at my stomach and [laughs] and the it wasn't funny and the sergeant says, "We're going to search your house." So I did what I was told to do by the ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union, I said "I...," "I deny you permission to search the house." And then he says to his troops, "Search the house, men." And so I said again, "I refuse to give you permission to search my house." And then I stood aside, I mean, what am I gonna do? So they searched the house. What are they looking for? Actually, they were looking for students. Students were supposed to have gone home; they were looking for students who might be lurking on campus. But... they didn't find any students; they found me and my wife and the cat and three kids. They found one student in a faculty apartment and arrested him for being on campus, in violation of I guess the governor's order that the campus was closed. And I think that kid was the only one arrested. And nobody was, in fact, hurt; the students didn't have guns that year. But the campus then was closed for a month. And academically nothing happened, of course. I mean we, people were very much involved, radical faculty members, administration members who were in a panic that this campus was going to disappear, I mean, to close down forever. Eventually, after about a month, the school reopened, and we finished up the year but it was just, everybody practically agreed not to talk about anything; it just, cross your fingers and pray and hope we get to the end of May without anybody getting hurt.

Story Clip #3:

The challenges of teaching at Voorhees College

Audio also available in MP3 format

The ethos, say, of the school, did not emphasize studying. And this is something that, no matter how much money or books or equipment or anything a college might have, we're at the mercy of our students. If the students, as a group, decide that studying is not cool, what can we do? We can't flunk everybody. But there was tremendous social pressure, I would say, on the students not to take academics seriously, not to go to the library in the evening, not to study in the evening, go to the student center. Peer pressure—it's very difficult for kids to resist, and it gets started and you can't do anything about it. And, it was really quite, it was very sad because some of the students, their parents were not affluent, and they were really making—the tuition was not high—but their parents were really making financial sacrifice to send their kids to college, and we, the college, we were not doing much of a job at educating them. We weren't preparing most of them for decent jobs when they got out. It was—seriously, it was disappointing, I, you know, I, I [hesitating] just dream, you know, "Bob Romer's gonna go down South and solve the race problem." I mean, of course not, but it certainly reinforced my feelings about how little I could actually do in certain situations, and how little—well, it's not simply my inadequacies—but how little most any one person could do. I mean, I really didn't go down there naively thinking that, "OK, I'm gonna go teach physics, and maybe I'll teach physics down there forever and everything is gonna be lovey–dovey," but it was sort of a sobering experience. And it was scary, and sometimes it was boring [tape cut off]

Story Clip #4:

Life in the communities of Voorhees College and Denmark, South Carolina

Audio also available in MP3 format

But it was scary when the college started up again. There were some disgruntled students who had been expelled who were going around trying to burn down some campus buildings, and we felt very vulnerable. I mean everybody hated us—that's an exaggeration but—my name had been in Columbia, South Carolina papers. One of the people who had been questioning why the college had fired these people and how it was wrong and so....the white people in town knew who I was and that I was sympathetic with the students who had been protesting and some of the black kids who were, let's say, out to—in a simple minded way—do something to get back at white people. Well, there we were, a white family living on the edge of campus in a frame house, three little kids, and students trying to burn buildings down, and it was scary. It was such a relief, I'm embarrassed to say, when we got back to Amherst where, that spring, students were protesting like mad, but it was safe.

Everything was very welcoming at the campus at first. I had some other nave ideas that here's this little town and its main claim to fame really is that there's a black college there. And so I was, as a white person, going to help make contacts between the white community in the town and the black college and help make the town proud of the college, maybe by getting the hardware store owner to donate equipment—pulleys and batteries and God–knows–what—that we could use in physics class and ....I knew I wasn't gonna solve the United States' racist race problem, but I might solve Denmark, South Carolina's race problem by getting these groups together. That didn't last long. The first Sunday I was there...I'm not a churchgoer, but I went to the Episcopal church downtown, the white Episcopal church. There was also a black Episcopal church on the campus. And everybody was very friendly, even though I had a Yankee accent, and I'm at the white Episcopal church, and oh, you know, "we must see more of you and meet your family," and then I had to sign the book, the guest book—where do you live? Well, what's my address? My address is Denmark, South Carolina, but the street address is Voorhees College Campus. Oh. Well. By the way, there's a chill in the air, they really lost interest in socializing with me. And my kids, two of 'em were in school, and they went to what was nominally a desegregated school, but it was very hard to make friends. We were the visiting Northerners who were teaching at the black college, and probably "black" wasn't, probably not the word they used. And it was one time in my children's experience in school when, not once during the entire year, did they ever get invited over to play at Johnny's house after school, or get invited to somebody's birthday party—it didn't happen. In terms of my also nave notion of getting the white and the black communities together a little bit in this town, it, it didn't happen.

They didn't want me at this school anymore. I had testified before the Board of Trustees on behalf of the particular black science teacher who had been summarily dismissed in the middle of the year, whose dismissal was based on reasons [for] which I actually had documents—letters between me and the dean—about what kind of staffing they needed, which contradicted their reasons. They had to have somebody, only people with PhDs in science. Well, this guy who was fired did not have a PhD in science, but the dean and the president and I had had exchanges of letters agreeing that having a PhD in science was a nice thing to have, but that it was not really very important in the context of this school. So some of the letters that I was able to show the Board of Trustees contradicted the reasons for the firing, and this didn't win me any friends in the administration. They were happy to see me go. And then some years later, I testified before the American Association of University Professors, which ended up with that college being on the, what–they–call–the–list of censured administrations—administrations that have basically broken their own rules and should stay on a list of bad administrations until they're off. So, they didn't want me, and I didn't want to stay there, and, I might have been able to go somewhere else, but the schools were not... I didn't want to do that to my kids either. So now I went back to Amherst, and I've been there ever since.

Story Clip #5:

The meaning of "Uncle Tom"

Audio also available in MP3 format

Uncle Tom is a common term for a black person who acts in a very subservient way to white people; who would step into the gutter when a white person comes along the sidewalk; who would say "Yes sir," and "No sir," and doesn't mind being called, "Boy." That was another linguistic problem at Amherst; I mean, dealing with 18–year–olds I referred to students as boys—I was very careful with my black students not to use terms like that.



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