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Discovering a Southern Relative: Claflin University

Linking very different schools that share founder and mission


Boston University is partnering with South Carolina’s Claflin University to host an exchange program beginning this fall.

Boston University recently located a long-lost sibling in South Carolina.

While reading up on his University history, Tom Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication, discovered that BU shares a founder with Claflin University, one of the country’s oldest colleges to educate black students. “Both were chartered in 1869 by former Massachusetts governor William Claflin,” says Fiedler (COM’71). “And both charters forbade discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or gender.”

“I called a woman from Claflin’s communications department,” he continues. “She didn’t know about the connection either, but we both agreed it needed to be explored.”

Among contemporary similarities: both schools have sacred music programs and Claflin’s communications program mirrors BU’s.

The parallel led Fiedler to suggest an exchange program. Officials from each school conferred and concurred: next fall, BU and Claflin students will have the opportunity to cross paths, and cross the Mason-Dixon Line.

Nestled in Orangeburg, S.C., a small town between Charleston and Columbia, Claflin is far removed from its New England counterpart. The student body hovers at 1,800, and its traditions are Southern.

“There’s a real cultural opportunity here,” says Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore. “Claflin is steeped in African-American history, and its students played a huge part in the Civil Rights movement.”

Claflin was the first college in South Carolina to open its doors to African-American students, enraging proponents of Jim Crow, or “separate-but-equal,” laws.

“The state retaliated by literally building South Carolina State University around Claflin,” Elmore says. “It was as if they were trying to strangle it.” The schools remain separated to this day by an iron fence.

“Any BU student who takes part in this exchange will see a different world,” says Victor Coelho, associate provost for undergraduate education and a College of Fine Arts professor. “It will be particularly useful to students studying Southern literature, regional dialects, or cultural theology.”

Fiedler looks for an “eye-opening opportunity. The majority of our students are affluent, urban, and white. I expect they’ll experience some culture shock by spending a semester or a year at a small liberal arts college in the Deep South.”

In reverse, Elmore predicts that Claflin students could be overwhelmed by BU. “We don’t exactly have a traditional campus,” he says. “We’re grittier, noisier, and a lot bigger.”

Coelho expects the exchange program to be in place by fall semester. “We’re counting on three to five students participating from both schools,” he says.

He hopes international exchange students will take part. “Think of it as a two-for-one deal,” he says. “They get the best of both worlds by spending one semester in Boston and one in South Carolina.”

“The only remaining question,” Fiedler says, “is why did it take us so long to do this?”

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @vickywaltz.


5 Comments on Discovering a Southern Relative: Claflin University

  • Prof. Dana L. Robert on 04.02.2010 at 7:46 am

    Claflin and B U

    Governor Claflin was the first Methodist governor of the state. The founders of B U were Methodist businessmen and clergy who were pro-abolitionist, and pro-coeducation. Gov. Claflin’s wife and mother were also deeply involved in mission work, along with the wives of the founders of the university. The early mission of B.U. as a northern Methodist school included support for the education of “freedman,” as freed slaves were then called. Thus the first African-American students at B U were educated in the various Methodist schools established in the South–Wiley in Texas, New Orleans University, Claflin, and others. The first African-American doctoral graduate of B U was John Wesley Bowen, who had been educated at the New Orleans School. He came to STH and earned a doctorate in historical theology and then became a distinguished college president in the South. The connections among B U, Claflin, Wiley, etc., continued a very long time. Recent STH doctoral graduates have gone to teach at Claflin within the past decade.

  • Anonymous on 04.02.2010 at 8:41 am

    Awww. I Love it. Great article. Let us bridge the gap BU!!

  • Anonymous on 04.07.2010 at 9:16 am

    I’m from Charleston and I will warn you: there is NOTHING in Orangeburg. Columbia isn’t the greatest of cities (though USC is there) and it’s maybe 30 minutes away. Charleston has a lot more going on (including beaches) and is really pretty, but it’s about an hour and a half away.

  • Anonymous on 05.31.2010 at 2:26 pm

    Claflin Univeristy

    Claflin University is an EXCELLENT University! It is the oldest HBCU in the state of South Carolina. I love CU, its about time Claflin venture out ant share with the world “The Claflin Confidence”!

  • C. Rock BU 77 on 11.21.2010 at 1:30 pm

    Exchange is good!

    Whether or not Orangeburg is a happenin’ town, the exchange will be good for both institutions. One semester will not hurt a Boston U transplant, and they may find the slower pace rejuvenating.

    What an extraordinary find and opportunity.

    I suggest Dean Elmore connect with BU Professor Heywood Professor of African History and African American Studies to develop additional opportunities.

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