Protesting stirred the nation

Abbey student who took over the Science Building recalls life in South, college life during 1960s

Ronald McDaniel had a friend who died in the Orangeburg Massacre.

The former Belmont Abbey College student knew Delano H. Middleton, one of three African-American men who died on Feb. 8, 1968 on the South Carolina State University campus in Orangeburg. 

“(Delano) could play some basketball,” McDaniel said. “I was hurt that his life was snuffed out.”

Colleges across the country had become hotbeds of violence amid student protests over Nixon, Vietnam and civil rights. Between South Carolina State (1968), Jackson State (1970) and Kent State (1970) universities, nine deaths and 49 shooting victims were the tragic results of gunfire.

Newspapers around the country told of student protests the last week of April in 1969 at Harvard, Radcliffe, Tufts, Dartmouth and Voorhees in Denmark, S.C. (Voorhees even had multiple students with lots of guns taking over two buildings.) Fifteen months later, McDaniel was caught up in another protest — this one more peaceful at Belmont Abbey.  

Black Voorhees College students took over two campus buildings the same week at Belmont Abbey’s Science Building takeover. More than 25 students, some with guns, were taken into custody and were served with arrest warrants. Later, the charges were dropped against all but seven.

McDaniel graduated from high school early in Orangeburg. After getting offers from schools like Georgetown, he chose the Abbey. As a dual major, he had plans to attend the Abbey for two years and then finish his four-year degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. Classes came with memories of the professors, students and monks. He lived in O’Connell dorm.

But missing was the total college experience, one he could not get at a predominately white college. There was obvious racism as well as direct racism in the South, he said.

“(The Orangeburg Massacre) didn’t twist me into (becoming) a revolutionary,” he said.

But he was aware of the Black Panther and Civil Rights movements. Unlike the Black student-athletes from places like New Jersey, he had lived with the strife his whole life. Car trips to Charlotte and Johnson C. Smith, a historically black college, were about finding the pulse of his nation while getting some support he couldn’t get in Belmont. 

“You needed to make a stand, show unity and get some resolve…

The sophomore and six of his friends woke up early on April 29 and took over the newest building on campus, the Science Building, and the rest was history. 

“I think people were more shocked at the level of awareness of us young guys,” McDaniel said.

Tension was high across the Carolinas and the country. On April 25, South Carolina mobilized 1,000 state troopers and National Guardsmen imposed a curfew amid a Charleston hospital strike that led to violence and hundreds of arrests.

McDaniel said his small group had noble plans.

“We wanted to bring that activism to the Abbey… We wanted to bring more black history, black identity to the college. In retrospect, all we wanted to do was get (some) black identity in college. But the media blew it up.”

Seven Black Abbey students took over the William S. Gaston Science Building in 1969. The protest called attention to their college experiences.

Television stations and newspapers made a beeline to the Tuesday takeover. After peaceful negotiations to leave the building, McDaniel said he ended up staying in town with a friend’s family for a couple of weeks until school officially ended. Days after, he traveled home with his sister, a Sacred Heart student, he learned of his ‘indefinite suspension’.

Reconciliation '“would be good.”

McDaniel went home to Orangeburg. He took a class at S.C. State and worked part-time before finishing his degree at Columbia’s Benedict College in 1972. McDaniel had thought he had gotten a deferment, but had received a 1A classification — he was not drafted. He moved to Atlanta in 1979 where he met his wife.

But Belmont Abbey never really left his mind with the good times he had. He still uses the information technology knowledge he acquired in Abbey classes in his professional career. He has regrets for not matriculating in Belmont and has even stopped to visit the campus with his wife.

McDaniel has an appreciation for that day at the end of Abbey Lane and what happened.

“You needed to make a stand, show unity and get some resolve,” he said. “They probably thought we were trying to bring communism to the Abbey.”

Would he like to see some reconciliation between the students and the college some 51 years later? 

“I think it would be good.”

—Matt Memrick for CABAC voice
Photo credits: Associated Press, Gaston Gazette, Charlotte News, Voorhees College archives, Passiac (N.J.) Herald Ronald McDaniel