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Winthrop Alumni Gather To Revive Support Group For Black Students During Integration's Early Years

Today, numerous organizations cater to the cultural needs of students of color at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, which has an enrollment that is 60 percent white. That wasn’t the case in 1964, when Winthrop admitted its first black student.

Instead, they felt isolated and discriminated against. So, in 1969, they formed the Association of Ebonites — a place to get support, organize black cultural events and advocate for equal rights.

The Ebonites no longer exist on the Winthrop campus, but last month, members held their first reunion in Columbia to share stories and work to revive the organization.

About 60 or so Ebonites from around the country gathered for a weekend of activities and reminiscing. During a luncheon, there were smiles and bear hugs abound as old friendships were renewed and new ones were made.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn
Association of Ebonites officers and gospel choir members

As they did in the past, this group of mainly African-American women sang, prayed, held hands and told stories of inspiration and of struggles they endured as students at the one-time all white, all women’s college.

“I’d go to the communal shower and when I came with my towel and everybody looked startled and the second day there were less people there and for most of the year I showered alone,” says attorney Sheilah McMillan, the reunion’s organizer. “I still haven’t figured out where the rest of the women showered. I heard that they would put Lysol in the showers and wash in buckets so they wouldn’t have to bathe in showers that we’d used.”

During her time as president of the Ebonites, McMillan met monthly with Winthrop’s president to talk about the concerns of black students and advocate for more inclusive policies. She graduated in 1974.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn
Attorney Sheilah McMillan, a former Ebonites president, holding a copy of the Roddey-McMillan Record, an African-American campus newspaper named after her and Cynthia Roddey, the first black to enroll at Winthrop in 1964.

“There were things that just weren’t adapted to us that would meet our needs. We didn’t have sororities or fraternities," she said. "For instance, the student union, we didn’t think it was designed for us to participate. Our culture was not included."

The Association of Ebonites was founded at Winthrop by Patricia Ware Brown in 1969. When she enrolled, there were only 13 black students on campus. 

The first four black women to actually live on campus were placed in housing separate from white students. Brown says little had changed when she enrolled, so she formed the Ebonites to support black students.

“We felt we needed a voice and people needed to stop looking at us as if we were invisible," Brown said. "We also wanted the administration to know that they had black students and they needed to realize it."

It wasn't easy.

“It was a bit daunting. It was hard getting accepted,” Brown continued. “I remember a biology class where one of the young ladies told me, 'You need to leave right away and go to Johnson C. Smith or S.C. State where you belong.'”

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn
Patricia Ware Brown founded the Association of Ebonites in 1969 as a support and advocacy group for blacks at Winthrop.

Despite incidents like these, the Ebonites quickly became the go-to place for black students and boasted members from a variety of different backgrounds uniting to push for what mattered to them.

McMillan says it was there for her in 1970 when she had an incident similar to Brown’s while attending an all-white church alone.

“There was an older gentleman came up and put a note in my hand and said, 'Give it to all your friends.' Of course it said, 'This church is for whites only,' so that meant every Sunday thereafter I was there with a lot of my friends at church," she said. "They were Ebonites too."

The Ebonites organized lectures, brought Civil Rights activists such as then-Georgia State Senator Julian Bond to campus, advocated for black faculty hires and leadership positions, performed community service, assigned every black student a mentor and established Black Week.

Karen Ross Grant read from a hand-written 1975 flyer about the week's activities.

“Sunday, we had the gospel choir concert with a reception to follow,” Grant said. “Monday, we had a play by Douglas Turner Ward called Day of Absence at Withers. We charged 50 cents to get in. Tuesday, soul dinner with some of best soul food you want.”

The week also included a fashion show and a live band, a lecture on the importance of voting, a basketball with nearby HBCU Clinton College and a formal Ebony Ball that featured Rufus and Tavaras.

“The Ebonites meant everything to me. We were, at that time, invisible and discounted, so we banded together to support one another, to make people aware that we too had gifts and talents to offer at Winthrop," Ebonite Debbie Martin, class of 1974, said. “We rocked in the classroom academically, we rocked socially and I think we set an example for other young ladies that you can come to Winthrop and get a good education and participate in your culture.”

"The Ebonites gave us strength,” said Patricia Reid, now a special education teacher, formed the Ebonites Gospel Choir. “We had to stay unified in order to function at Winthrop because of our culture. We fought for being recognized and respected as black students and we were because we were unified and we were going to fight for each other.”

Brown says that when well-publicized, the group’s activities by some as threatening - and that one school official told her as much.

“She said we frightened them and we had no idea of what it was like to be a southern belle and we had to do things toned down and more acceptable," Brown said. "That was her best way of explaining that as a group we made people uncomfortable."

But the group did not tone things down. Instead, it helped pave the way for black sororities, fraternities and other cultural groups as Winthrop’s black enrollment grew.

Today, the rich history of the Ebonites is lost on many students. Membership has dwindled in recent years as other organizations for black students have formed, such as the student NAACP, the African Student Association and The Natural Hair Group.

At Winthrop’s student center, many students said they had never heard of the Ebonites, including African Americans like senior Tyler Pitts. He’s not sure it’s needed anymore.

“Winthrop is doing a good job with minority interaction and diversity and involvement on campus,” Pitts said. “No one seems to be excluded. Most of the frats and club organizations are run by African Americans. It made me feel at home.”

Student Kayla Stevenson has not heard of the Ebonites either, but sophomore Quest Morris has. Both think there is work to be done by such a group and mention the hanging of black figures in a tree on campus two years ago. The school also has buildings named for segregationists.

“It’s very much needed for students of color because we face a lot of things that other races might not understand," Stevenson said. "It’s good to be around other people that can understand what you’re going through."

“It was about empowerment,” Morris said. “Considering the political climate we are in, especially in terms of race, I believe it is most necessary for organizations like that to come up. The Association of Ebonites would be great.”

That kind of interest is what Ebonite members want to hear - because part of the purpose of the reunion was to revitalize the organization.

“We plan to go back and give back so the Ebonites will rise again to our former glory,” says Deborah Martin.

Timothy Hopkins was the lone man at the reunion (men were fully admitted in 1974). Hopkins, a member of Winthrop’s board, says that if the revival of the Ebonites is to be successful, it has to be lead by students.

“We do have a student representative on the Board of Trustees and I will be having a conversation with that individual real, real soon to see if I can get them to ignite that desire to restart the organization and make it as relevant as it has been in the past,” Hopkins said.

That gives McMillan, the first African American to serve on Winthrop’s board, hope. On a campus where they felt they were not wanted, the group provided a safe space, inspired students, shaped their careers and, above all, represented cultural pride.