The city of Charleston was built on the income generated by the enslavement, sale, and purchase of people. It is then no surprise that the College of Charleston opened in 1770 as a public institution serving only white males. If we fast forward through the continued legal enslavement and later legal exploitation of black laborers, we arrive in the 1940s. Racial tensions quickly rose to the surface following WWII, and it became clear we would soon need to recast our social world. Facing pressure from the NAACP and black student activists from the Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, administrators at The College of Charleston decided to sell the public charter to a private board of trustees for $1 in 1949. This effectively removed the public officials sitting on the board of trustees, centralized power in the hands of Charleston’s white ruling elite, and removed the public responsibility to any anticipated desegregation mandates.

Francis “Frank” Sturcken was a student at the College of Charleston from 1947 to 1951, and witnessed the decision to become private. 

Francis (Frank) Sturcken in his senior
at the College of Charleston, 1951

 As an active English major on campus, he led several social and artistic clubs. He also was a three-time winner of the College’s longstanding campus-wide male-only speech competition, the Bingham Oratorical Competition. The third time he competed, he delivered a speech titled “The Liquid South,” advocating for the desegregation of the school. Perhaps to our surprise, the speech wins! It is thoroughly-researched and employs both moral arguments and quantitative data to argue, ultimately, for the institution to desegregate.

This is a bold and brave act of protest: publicly taking a stand for progress, and particularly racial progress in Charleston. He was blacklisted by the administration and the local newspaper only announced the speech’s title, which is contrasted with the coverage nearly three times as long in previous years. However, he also found a great deal of (rather quiet) support, receiving notes from admirers and newspaper coverage across the country.

However, Sturcken’s speech is not above criticism. While it did create tension for white people—tension which must be reconciled—his story invites us to reflect on how a more sustained form of activism might have had a more meaningful impact. Furthermore, Sturcken does not include the voice of those for whom he advocates, so the question becomes whether it was fair for him to represent the black people to whom he did not listen. It is perhaps, then, most useful to see Sturcken’s impact as produced from an intersectional person who was navigating a particular context. It’s neither good nor bad, but rather a historical exception to white supremacy which asks us to question the very ways we navigate our world, and our time at the College of Charleston, differently.

For more information see The College Today article


-The Comet Yearbook of the College of Charleston, 1951. Courtesy of College of Charleston Special Collections

-Francis "Frank" Sturcken Papers, 1951-1999. Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston Libraries.

-Morrison, Nan. A History of the College of Charleston, 1936-2009. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2011

 The Inaugural Sturcken Oratorial was held 2019.

Sturcken Oratorical