During my long quest to learn the truth about the Orangeburg Massacre, I was given many tips. Most led to dead-ends. One of vital importance to the story would take more than five years to pay off.
George Dean, a lifelong resident of Orangeburg, owned and operated a men’s clothing store at 1185 Russell Street. In 1968, he was the only black member of the South Carolina National Guard. I phoned him at his store on Sept. 8, 2000 after being told he had been called to duty during the days prior to the shooting.
I asked his help in putting together the still missing pieces of the massacre story. Though extremely polite, Dean was cautious and hesitant. Yes, he was the only black Guardsman on duty in Orangeburg. He had driven a jeep that shuttled key personnel to the central communications facility and had protected the Guard’s main ammunition storage depot.
However, he was conflicted and told me he couldn’t reveal what he knew. The reasons: he had kids in college and a mortgage on his business. There might be a price to pay for his going public with details on the shooting, and he couldn’t jeopardize his family’s welfare in the event there was a boycott of his business.
At this stage, I asked him if we could go “off the record.” I read him a summary of the path I was taking in this project. I asked him if he would simply warn me if anything were not true. Through carefully calculated silence, Dean signaled I was on the right path.
I kept in touch with George Dean in the subsequent years. I followed the progress of his children through college. I made sure he remembered my interest and never pressured him for his story. Until early 2006, that is.
I was planning a trip to South Carolina in February to introduce Frank Military, a screenwriter researching Orangeburg, to various figures in the massacre story. A week before the visit, I called George Dean again.
“George, all your kids graduated from college?” I asked. “Yes,” he said with a chuckle, sensing what was coming. “And you finally paid off that mortgage, right?” “Sure did.” Well, my friend, the time is now. It’s time to tell your story.”
With George Dean, as I had learned over the years, there are no guarantees. When Frank and I finished our work in Orangeburg on the afternoon of February 13, 2006, I was told to call George on his mobile phone. He’d let us know then if he could do the interview.
Our schedule that day was tight. We had interviews in Columbia in the morning and then drove to the Chestnut Grill on the outskirts of Orangeburg, where we had lunch with Bill Hine, an expert on the massacre and professor at S.C. State University.
A comfortable, family-style lunch hangout, the Chestnut was clearly a community gathering place. As Hine briefed Frank Military and I on the town, we spotted Andrew Hugine, the ninth president of S.C. State University. A former S.C. State student himself, Hugine was clearly sympathetic to our mission and offered the services of his office for anything we needed. It was a warm, gracious welcome to Orangeburg.
Less than a month later, Hugine would apologize to nine former students for the actions of Dr. Benner C. Turner, S.C. State’s fourth president. The students, who were expelled or suspended from the school in the wake of peaceful protests in 1956, had returned to the campus for the first time in 50 years.
“You fought for justice, equality and dignity,” Hugine told them. “You were exercising your constitutional rights to challenge segregation. We can never ever repay you. We cannot undo the past as much as we would like to.”
We’d learn that day—more than I had previously realized—that Orangeburg had a very deep history in the American civil rights movement. These 1956 demonstrations at S.C. State came before Rosa Parks got on a bus in Montgomery; before the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro; and before Emmett Till had been lynched.
Later in the day, after Hine had guided us on a tour of the town and walked us through the area of the shooting, I retreated to our rental car to call George Dean. I dialed his mobile number. No answer. I got voice mail. Dejected, I tried again. Bingo! This time he answered.
“Meet me in the parking lot behind the Trinity Methodist Church in exactly one hour,” he said abruptly.
No address or directions were given, and—it became immediately clear—that none were needed. A towering presence across a street from the S.C. State campus, the Trinity church, founded in 1866, is an icon of civil rights history. It was a fitting place for our meeting with Dean.
Precisely on time, George Dean drove into the nearly empty parking lot and greeted us. He led us to a small office complex next to the church, where he was well known by the staff, and waved us into a conference room.
There was little small talk. I received permission to record audio of the interview and we got started. Within minutes, it was clear that Dean, a precise and cautious man, had carefully considered what he wanted to say (and not say) about the Orangeburg Massacre. For the next hour, we’d hear an intense, spellbinding monologue. There was little opportunity for questions.
In 1965, George Dean, facing imminent draft and almost certain of duty in Vietnam, became the first black member of his state’s National Guard. He volunteered in order not to fight in what he considered an unjust war. “I perceived it then and that’s the way I perceive it now,” he said firmly.
The oldest male in a family of seven children, Dean was raised by parents who were professional educators. He was literally brought up on the campus of S.C. State. “They didn’t have enough money to send me to Canada,” Dean recalled. “I didn’t see myself going into the military. I knew the percentage of black Americans in Vietnam. I didn’t see my chances being good for survival.”
Having taken ROTC in college, Dean aced the test for admission to the Guard. He did so well, in fact, that the surprised and skeptical white test administrators put him through more hoops, asking him for credit and character references. Each time he complied and exceeded expectations. There was no denying he was an ideal candidate. Finally, in late 1965, George Dean integrated the National Guard. He’d serve as a weekend soldier for six years.
“It wasn’t long before I realized that I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire,” he recalled. It took three years for other Guard members even to recognize him as a fellow soldier. “When I joined the Guard in ’65, it was just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The South was still in an uproar. Every time there was a civil unrest, they called the Guard. Here I was, the lone black soldier in the militia.”
While Dean experienced racism within the ranks of the Guard, he was simultaneously castigated by members of his own black community. “I was really between a rock and a hard place.” He still winced at the pain of being called to Charleston in the mid ’60s, where his job was to protect electrical utilities during a civil rights disturbance.
While walking along King Street with a uniformed white colleague, an elderly black lady leaving a hotel approached them. “She looked at me and she said ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’ It’s hard to explain the feelings. I didn’t blame her. She just didn’t understand. But it hurt no less. That’s the price we pay when we carry the coat in America.”
Another difficult moment came in 1966 when the Guard was called to stop a civil rights disturbance at Voorhees College in Denmark, the home town of Cleveland Sellers, a local activist that Dean knew and admired. “We went to Voorhees and I just didn’t feel right,” Dean said, recalling that he was threatened with a court martial over his reluctance.
“We entered the campus there at about five in the morning to find no unrest or students. I was a member of a unit that was supposed to quell an unrest and all they did was go into an institution of learning to destroy physical property. The Guardsmen knocked down the doors of professors’ offices and classrooms to find whatever they perceived was there.”
Over time, Dean’s skill and professionalism was recognized within the Guard’s ranks. He got along well with John Shuler, his commanding officer, a white man he worked with over the years as both a civilian and a soldier.
Then came 1968. “Orangeburg simmered for a long time before Cleve even got here,” Dean noted. “Cleve was victimized like so many others. Racism in Orangeburg was no different from any other Southern town. It had all the makings of any other Southern community—from its segregated (movie) theaters to its water fountains to everything else.”
When the Guard was activated by Gov. McNair for duty in Orangeburg in early 1968, Shuler chose to keep Dean close to him. Dean’s assignment was to drive Shuler’s jeep and, when other soldiers were away, to protect the main door of the National Guard Armory on Broughton Street, about two miles from the S.C. State campus.
“Being the jeep driver...you know drivers, chauffeurs, waiters hear and see a lot of things.” On the nights leading up to violence in Orangeburg, Dean said he heard plenty, much of it perceived by white ears in ways far out of proportion from reality.
“It’s like the three of us in this room could see something and perceive it in a totally different manner. That’s what happened.”
At the wheel of a jeep, Dean repeatedly drove his white Guard superiors to the communications center at the telephone company, where they had direct communication with Gov. McNair. Time after time, he interpreted their comments to the governor as “amplified” and over the top.
“In another setting, at another time, you would say it was blown way out of proportion. I’ve thought...these were civilian soldiers just like myself that carried a different rank. They were still Southerners. White Southerners. So many stories in the South are so parallel. In that whether it’s the police chief, the mayor, or even the solicitor—they are all in the same room with the same damn hood. Just when night came up, they wore a different hat. There’s nothing unique about the South. So I can see why they might have seen things in a different light.”
From the conversations that he overheard, Dean is convinced that if Robert McNair was not fed misinformation, he was certainly given wrongly perceived information by his men in the field.
By February 8, Dean had been on active duty about a week, mostly securing the armory door when not driving the jeep. Shuler, his commanding officer, obviously aware of his sensitive position, didn’t deploy him for other duties in Orangeburg. “He didn’t put me in harm’s way. I won’t fantasize what might have happened if he had. I just thank God that he didn’t.”
On the morning of February 8, Shuler approached Dean at the armory and gave him a welcome break to go home, get a shower, and take a short rest.
“I lived about two miles from the armory and one block below the campus on Buckley Street. The first thing I did is go home, get out of my uniform and put on my civvies. Mobility in town was really on lock down. Tanks were at every crossing....every major entry into the city and even at every exit or entrance to the campus. I got on my bicycle and I rode to the campus.”
Dean went directly to the office of Dr. Maceo Nance, S.C. State’s acting president. He asked the secretary if he could speak with Nance and was immediately shown in. Nance was meeting with two student leaders in his office at the time.
“Dr. Nance, if there’s any way humanly possible that you can keep the students off the street tonight, do so.” Dean warned him of the skewed perceptions of the white men outside and how dangerous the climate had become.
Dean and Nance each maintained an air of formality in this critical exchange. Though the young man wore civilian clothes during their brief meeting, Nance knew very well that Dean was the only black member of the National Guard. They had a long personal history in a small town. As a kid, George Dean was Maceo Nance’s paper boy!
Dean had a gut feeling that compelled him to warn Nance. “I knew from standing at the door five days and from seeing and hearing SLED to Highway Patrol to Guardsmen. I knew the climate. I knew what I heard and I knew what I was seeing.”
When he returned to duty, Dean’s first sergeant ordered him to start clipping ammo. “Ammo comes loose. It doesn’t come clipped. It comes in a wooden box. And I was ordered to start clipping ammo.”
A clip is a small metal case that is used to store multiple rounds of 5.56 millimeter ammunition together as a unit, ready for insertion into the magazine of the M16 semiautomatic rifles—commonly called carbines—used by the National Guard and other law enforcement agencies.
In the evening, a short time before the shootings on the campus, Dean brought some clipped ammo from the armory for Pete Strom, the chief of SLED. As Strom put a load of M16 ammo on his shoulder and walked away, he uttered words that George Dean will never forget:
“We’re tired of playing with them niggers.”
In less than an hour, Dean got the word from Shuler that some students had been shot. “I didn’t know the magnitude then and I didn’t know until the next morning.”
Dean makes it clear he didn’t witness the shooting and cannot say definitely who pulled the triggers. “But I do know the record shows that the students were shot in the back while retreating from a peaceful demonstration for their civil and equal rights. They were denied (those rights) and their lives were taken. They were wounded. And justice to this day has never been served.”
At this point, Dean—increasingly emotional from telling his story—began to weep.
“I think it would be easier to talk about this if I could sit here at this time and say that I think justice was served. But in my heart of hearts, I don’t think that has happened yet. Smith, Hammond and Middleton will never come back. And triggers don’t squeeze themselves.”
Dean stood and took off his microphone. He asked us to take a short walk with him. We left the building and crossed a lawn over to the massive Trinity United Methodist Church. We entered a side door and descended some steps to a large room in the basement.
It was sunset and the dimming light through the church’s stained glass windows cast an eerie, warm glow over the vast space. This very room, Dean told us, served as headquarters for the ’60s civil rights movement in Orangeburg. It pulsed with rich history—the site of key organizational meetings, as well as rallies attended by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins.
As we walked into the chilly evening air outside the vast sanctuary, completed in 1944, it was hard to escape the view. Just across the street, only a few yards away, was the grassy hill, where on another chilly Februrary night 38 years earlier, guns opened fire on the students at S.C. State.
“Jim Crow is not something you want to talk about every day,” Dean told us. “Jim Crow was not pretty. Any place in the South. My story is many stories of blacks in the South. Many had it worse than me. I was never lynched or hung from a tree. I was not humiliated.”
However, Dean said sadly, “I sit in my own hometown, where I was reared, educated, and raised my family. I would like to think I’ve been a pretty respectable and decent citizen. (Yet) I still see the antebellum South.” He pauses to consider his words. “Do I feel good saying that? Hell, no.”
Dean was never asked by any investigator or law enforcement agency to tell his story. “I don’t think the Southern white man is ready to correct any wrongs yet. The Southern white man still deals more with what his peers think of him than what’s right. It’s like the kid on the school grounds that wants to remain popular instead of doing what’s right. I don’t think the hearts of South Carolinians have changed to do what’s right (in order) to remain popular with their friends.”
I asked Dean: Have things improved in Orangeburg since 1968?
“Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. Has substantive change taken place in Orangeburg? No. There’s a different code of racism now. I would say that most change in the South, and most change in my town, which I love so dearly, is cosmetic. The new South ain’t so new.”
I had a final question for Dean: Will the issue of the Orangeburg shootings be resolved in our lifetime?
“I was optimistic of that. I don’t know whether I am anymore. I will never say never because, as a Christian, I believe if you ever lose hope, you’ve lost everything.”
George Dean’s historic and exclusive interview is part of “Wild History,” my Kickstarter project.
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