Citadel of trauma: the untold story of The Citadel’s first Black graduate – Cover Story - Higher Education


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Citadel of trauma: the untold story of The Citadel’s first Black graduate – Cover Story

by Linda L. Megget

“Those four years made him a completely different person — no doubt
about it. Charles was intense after he graduated. You could really tell
when he talked, especially when he was making a point. His demeanor had
changed. I’m sure something happened and it was so traumatic…he
refused to talk about it.” — Bill Foster, brother

Charleston, S.C. — Charles DeLesline Foster was just a
seventeen-year-old Black kid who wanted a college education when he
joined The Citadel Corps of Cadets in 1966. What he got was a lesson in
humility and a place in the history books as the corps’ first Black
graduate.

Unlike the four women who broke the gender barrier at the
153-year-old military college in 1996, Foster carried his burden alone.
When the female pioneers entered The Citadel, the world watched.
Foster’s arrival thirty years before stirred barely a ripple beyond The
Citadel’s iron gates.

“People didn’t want him there,” said his brother, Bill Foster, who
with his mother accompanied Charles on the first day of registration.
“But that first day, they treated him as any other plebe coming into
the system. No one treated us ill, but you could tell feelings were
hidden.”

That kind of ambiguity may have been the hallmark of Charles
Foster’s four years at The Citadel. Even today, thirty years after he
broke the corps’ color barrier and ten years after he died in a Texas
house fire, questions remain not only about the facts of Foster’s
Citadel years, but about his place in history, too.

“For The Citadel, Charles Foster was the wrong Black guy to be the
first, just like Shannon Faulkner was the wrong first woman,” said
alumnus and author Pat Conroy, a frequent Citadel critic.

From the beginning of his Citadel experience, Charles Foster drew
little attention. The great desegregation stories had already been
written: James Meredith had already integrated the University of
Mississippi; Harvey Gantt of North Charleston had broken the color line
at Clemson.

Nor were Black students unprecedented at The Citadel. Even before
Foster arrived, Blacks had attended summer school at the college. But
no Black man had ever been a part of the Corps of Cadets, endured the
fourth-class system, or worn the ring.

D.D. Nicholson, former Citadel public relations director, said
later that the college asked the media not to make a big fuss about
Foster’s arrival on campus. Reporters agreed to rules designed not to
single out Foster. The national media filed low-key stories, then left.
A short story about Foster’s arrival, battalion assignment, and
roommate appeared in The (Charleston, S.C.) News and Courier.

During Foster’s four years at The Citadel, only two stories, one
column and one editorial were written about him locally. The story
about the 1970 graduation had one paragraph about the first Black
graduate.

This lack of public attention meant that Foster’s experience went virtually unexamined for thirty years.

Name-calling was common. Cadets yelled out windows to camouflage
the source of the insults. And the abuse didn’t end with his knob
(freshman) year. Whatever punishment other cadets received, it was
worse for Foster because he was Black. said New Jersey native Dave
Hooper of Inverness, Ill., a 1970 graduate who was Foster’s first
roommate. Hooper said he received letters warning him never to
associate or go home with Foster.

“Senior upperclassmen told me I was his roommate because Charlie
would live longer.” he said. “[Upperclassmen] pressured our classmates
to pressure Charlie to quit. In most cases plebes band together. But in
this particular situation, I can’t say it happened for Charlie.

“I would get the same question every time I went into one
individual’s room. The question was always, ‘Did you kill him yet?’ in
reference to my roommate,” Hooper said.

Other cadets from Foster’s chain of command described his life on
campus as uneventful. William G. Riggs of Anchorage, Alaska, who was
Foster’s company commander in 1966, said the Black cadet did nothing to
bring attention to himself. Foster was disciplined for typical cadet
infractions and was never excessively hazed, according to Riggs.

Gen. Hugh P. Harris was president of The Citadel at the time.

Said Bill Foster, “I don’t think [Harris] wanted Charles there, but
he wasn’t going to do anything that would hurt The Citadel or make the
school look bad.”

It’s a theme that Conroy explored in his novel, The Lords of
Discipline — a story of several white cadets whose lives are
intertwined with the arrival of the first Black cadet at a
fictionalized version of The Citadel. Though the college was originally
resistant to change, Conroy believes the administration wanted Foster
to succeed in 1966 just as it wants the women there now to succeed.

“If the administration didn’t want him, he would have went away as
Shannon Faulkner did,” said Conroy, referring to the first woman to
become a cadet. Admitted to the corps by court order in August 1995,
Faulkner dropped out before the end of the first week.

But Conroy disagrees with those who say Foster was treated like other cadets.

“They would have people think Charles was treated like Martin
Luther King was treated when he went to Sweden to get the Nobel Prize,”
Conroy said. “Charles was brutalized.”

Conroy, who was a senior when Foster was a knob, said, “This was a
tough kid. I never heard one kid called nigger more in my entire life.”

During “roving mess,” when the athletes ate with the other cadets,
freshmen were forced out of their usual seats and had to find another
place to eat. It was obvious when Charles was looking for a seat Conroy
said, because the chant “rigger, rigger” was heard. “I told Charles to
always find me. When he would sit down with me, all the southern boys
would leave.”

Bubba Kennedy of Charleston was a cadet in G Company with Foster. He said the Black cadet just blended in.

“Charlie was quiet, but I wouldn’t say he was a loner. He was
really one of the guys by the time we were seniors,” remembered Kennedy.

Foster did things and got in trouble like other cadets. He was
absent without leave. Kennedy even said Foster carried him home one
night after he had too much to drink.

From Kennedy’s perspective, the other cadets were glad to have
Foster in G Company. He went through the system like the rest and he
survived it.

“I know in a way he was alone just because he was the first Black. But he was also special that way,” Kennedy said.

Riggs said he put Foster in a room next to him, but there was no
around-the-clock monitoring. He could not remember Foster getting the
silent treatment, although he said it probably existed.

But others paint a darker picture of Charles Foster’s Citadel
experience. According to his brother, Foster received threatening
letters, got the silent treatment, and had several brushes with
roommates.

Foster survived, but his success was relative. A former honors
student at Charles A. Brown High School, Foster’s grades at The Citadel
were undistinguished. His weight increased by thirty pounds and he
never rose above the rank of private.

As a senior in 1970, Charles hung out with some classmates. He even
took a few home to visit his mother. But something was missing. Perhaps
one can glimpse it in the pages of the 1970 Citadel yearbook, The
Sphinx. In it, Foster shows up in only one casual photo with the other
members of G Company. And even then, he’s on the perimeter, appearing
not to fit in.

Life After The Citadel

Although The Citadel is proud of the way it changes its cadets,
Bill Foster doesn’t sound sure that the changes were good for his
brother.

“He said to me that he was not going to let anything beat him, and
that was his attitude,” Bill Foster said. “Those four years made him a
completely different person — no doubt about it. Charles was intense
after he graduated. You could really tell when he talked, especially
when he was making a point. His demeanor had changed. I’m sure
something happened and it was so traumatic . . . he refused to talk
about it.”

Charles Foster celebrated his graduation in May 1970, then left
Charleston and never moved back. He was commissioned an Army lieutenant
and spent three years as an explosives expert, most of it at Aberdeen
Proving Ground in Maryland. He never went to Vietnam, and settled in
Dallas after leaving the Army in 1973.

But success eluded him. Near the end of his life, Foster was a
moving company manager struggling to pay his bills. A burglary
conviction in 1985 led to a four-month stay in a Texas state prison. He
never married and had no children.

Charles died with two other men in a house fire on March 29, 1986,
outside Dallas. Officials suspected arson, but the case remains
unsolved, a fire department spokesman said.

An Overlooked Trailblazer

Despite Charles Foster’s role in Citadel history, no scholarship or
building bears his name. There is no mural and no bust. The school’s
tribute to him is an eight-inch by ten-inch black-and-white reprint of
his senior picture with an inscription displayed in the third-floor
museum of the Daniel Library. It was unveiled, as a posthumous honor,
in 1992.

There was a “major hush” in the room the day the picture was
unveiled, said Dr. Larry Ferguson, a 1973 Black graduate and former
member of The Citadel’s Board of Visitors. “People were shocked.” They
expected more, he said.

In his remarks at the unveiling, Nicholson, the former public
relations director, said that Foster was not a pioneer and his presence
had been no big deal, according to Ferguson, who added that people
groaned and some walked out.

“I don’t think Charles received the recognition he deserves,” his
brother said. “He was a trailblazer, and they always get the shaft.”

It took The Citadel twenty-two years to recognize Foster for his
achievement. In contrast, a display about the admission of women has
already been added to The Citadel’s history museum.

“The Citadel was [Charles’s] toughest challenge,” Bill Foster said.
“He won, but never got the prize or the recognition. But he’s still a
Citadel man.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com

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