COLUMBIA, S.C. – This weekend is a celebration of football in this state. A nation of fans have the chance to watch three of the top stars in the sport over the course of three days: Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina, and Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins of Clemson. They are three student-athletes who represent the state of South Carolina's image almost as much as any politician, Fed Chairman, or Comedy Central host.
The timing of this football festival is meaningful. It was fifty years ago, almost to the day, when a 16-year-old girl became the first black student at the University of South Carolina. She and two male African-American students registered for classes here in 1963 and changed history. Because of what they did, many of the players on the field this weekend can do what they do so well.
The girl's name was Henrie Monteith. She is now Dr. Henrie Monteith Treadwell, 67. And when asked about Clowney and his African-American Gamecocks teammates, she proudly says, "Those are my children."
Even during a week spent commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have A Dream' Speech, it's hard to fathom what it was like for Treadwell. She grew up in a completely black part of this city, and then went to court for the right to be immersed in a completely white setting. South Carolina was at the time the only state that didn't allow black students in its public universities.
In 1954, a domestic worker from Eastover named Sarah Mae Flemming was assaulted as she tried to exit a bus. Her ensuing lawsuit set a legal precedent for Rosa Parks' brave stand in a similar situation a year later.
"In court that summer, they asked me why I wanted to go to South Carolina," Treadwell says by phone from her home in Atlanta. "I said I don't know if I wanted to do it. I wanted to know if they would accept me. When they did not accept me, that's when I knew I wanted to do it.
"I decided they did not have the right to tell me I could not come."
She won her court case, and the University's appeal was denied.
Treadwell was not alone. Two others enrolled with her on Sept. 11, 1963: James Solomon and Robert Anderson. And Clemson was integrated earlier that same year by Harvey Gantt, who went on to become mayor of Charlotte, N.C.
But she was lonely. She walked to classes alone, ate most of her meals alone and stayed in her dorm alone while classmates were out at parties.
Some of the other women were not welcoming. "They would leave a little food outside your door," she says diplomatically. "They thought it was cute. I put it outside their door. You know, come on, grow up."
Things got better, and easier. She felt more comfortable as her college years went on and eventually found herself eating and socializing with white students.
"There were some very thoughtful people who made sure that I met students and that I had interactions within the white community," Treadwell says. She got her degree in biology in 1965, then went on to a Masters in biology and a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Treadwell is now a leader in the field of biology and in 2006 was honored with South Carolina's Distinguished Service Award.
She looks back now with very few regrets, but there is one that stands out.
"I didn't get to attend sporting events," she says. "They were playing Dixie and I couldn't quite go through that."
All these years later, she has never been to a South Carolina football game. Former Gamecocks coach Lou Holtz once wrote her a letter and said she was welcome. But she hasn't been. Perhaps now is the time – the September 14 game at home against Vanderbilt is the week of her 50th anniversary of enrolling. An incredible change has occurred, as in 1963 it would have been a security risk for a black woman to be in a large crowd of white fans.
“For them, color was racially driven, full of tension and created visceral reactions,” says Kim Jamieson, who is working on a year-long celebration, Columbia SC 63, recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement in the city. “Henrie wasn’t able to attend because of her skin color, but today, the only segregation of color you’ll see at South Carolina football games is garnet and black, and orange.”
Treadwell is a huge football fan. She has season tickets for the Atlanta Falcons. (In fact, she didn't watch the South Carolina game Thursday because the Falcons were on.) She watches the Gamecocks with deep satisfaction – from afar.
"I see them and they would not know how much pride I take in their achievements," Treadwell says. "I'll never know them, but you can tell them. They are able to live their dream simply because I took a walk one day."
This weekend brings a statewide celebration of football. It's also, in a way, a statewide celebration of a 16-year-old girl with the courage to lead. The Tigers and Gamecocks, both reflections of South Carolina, are just as much a reflection of her.