Fifty years later, Joliet man’s civil rights legacy gets a nod
BY BOB OKON firstname.lastname@example.org August 27, 2013 10:42PM
James Hollins of Joliet was the first black student at the University of South Carolina in Beaufort 50 years ago. | Bob Okon~Sun-Times media
Updated: September 29, 2013 6:46AM
James Hollins jokes now — 50 years later — that he didn’t need the National Guard when he walked onto the campus of the University of South Carolina Beaufort as its first black student. He had the Marines.
Hollins is well known in Joliet for his career as a tax accountant. What most people don’t know about is his role in the advancement of civil rights in the United States.
As the nation marks the 50th Anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Hollins’ life is an example of how much difference it could make in the life of one black man to have the opportunities that today are taken for granted, and also just how different the times were back then.
Hollins was a Marine stationed at Parris Island, S.C., in 1963, when he decided to answer the call put out by the University of South Carolina.
“The reason I went to college is they had a program and they wanted so many Marines to come to the University of South Carolina. I qualified,” Hollins said in an interview at his Joliet home. “We got the letter that said they needed Marines. But they didn’t know one of them was black.”
Actually, Hollins wasn’t the only black Marine stationed at Parris Island. But he was the only black Marine who wanted to take up the university on its offer and qualified after taking the test.
Just a few months before Hollins walked onto campus for his first day of college, the federal government sent the National Guard to the University of Alabama to enforce the rights of black students to enroll for classes.
On Aug. 28, King made his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington. On Sept. 12, Hollins enrolled for classes at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
The National Guard did not come to Beaufort for Hollins’ first day at college. But his fellow Marines did. Showing their support, a few Marines, all of them white, Hollins said, simply came with him that day.
Hollins, 85, remembers one of the university administrators asking one of the Marines what he was doing there. The Marine answered, “Taking a walk.”
Except for some persistent questioning from university administration as to why he wanted to take classes at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, Hollins said he really had no trouble there.
“The students were fine. The teachers were fine. It’s the administration that didn’t want me there,” he said.
After the first day, the administration did not give him any trouble either. Hollins took two classes in English and math. But he would continue to take classes during his years in the Marines. He took correspondence courses and classes at other universities, including the University of Tokyo.
It was those classes that made it possible after he left the Marines for Hollins to get a job in the business office at the old Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway in Joliet. He continued his studies at Governors State University, getting degrees in business and accounting. He became a certified public accountant.
In the 1970s, Hollins opened his own business, Hollins Tax and Accounting Service, and he ran it for about 30 years before retiring in 2006.
But when he was growing up in Mississippi, Hollins never thought of college even though he was an A student. He joined the Marines and fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars before leaving for civilian life and pursuing a career in business.
While Hollins’ enrollment at Beaufort was relatively uneventful, the desegregation fight was more fierce at the University of South Carolina’s main campus in Columbia. Three black students gained admission after suing in federal court.
Hollins remembers his admission was delayed one day because the university was waiting to see what happened at the main campus in Columbia. When the three black students were admitted there, Hollins was in.
While his admission to the school was not accompanied by the high drama seen in other civil rights battles, it may be notable because of that.
“He was well-received by students, although he did mention that a few of his fellow Marines walked in with him,” said Craig Kridel, curator for the Museum of Education at the University of South Carolina.
Hollins’ status as a Marine and the show of support from his comrades may have counted for something, Kridel said, since the community of Beaufort has always had a close relationship with the Marines at Parris Island.
“He was well received by the community and the students, which is not like it was, I’m sorry to say, here in Columbia,” Kridel said.
Hollins’ admission was so uneventful that it was almost lost to history. Kridel said he learned about it while doing research for the 50th anniversary of the three black students admitted at the main campus. Once he found out about Hollins, Kridel found little written about him — one article in a Beaufort newspaper and another in a regional publication called Southern School News.
“Mr. Hollins has not been mentioned in the discussion and the narrative of the desegregation of the 20th century,” Kridel said.
That is changing. Hollins has been invited to an informal ceremony at the University of South Carolina in Columbia on Sept. 13, when panels at the museum will tell his story along with those of other students who helped desegregate higher education.
On Sept. 15, Hollins’ story will be told on the museum’s website, www.ed.sc.edu/museum.
“This is exciting,” Kridel said. “We are happy to introduce him into the discussion as well he should be.”
Hollins’ daughter, Debra Perrie, said his family is happy and proud to learn that her father is being remembered and honored by the university. At the same time, she said, they were surprised to hear that he was getting the attention.
“We knew the story, but it didn’t register with us,” Perrie said. “Daddy always was our hero. He always did so much.”
Hollins does not appear to be a man who seeks attention. Even on that day 50 years ago Sept. 12, Hollins, who had already been to war by the time he went to college, said he did not worry about what hostility he could face upon his arrival on campus.
“I didn’t care,” he said with a laugh.
Hollins only spent one semester at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. He was transferred to the Marine base in Albany, Ga. But he continued to pursue an education.
Asked last week what his life might have been like without a college education, Hollins answered simply, “I hate to think about it.”