June Manning Thomas Furman University
(second from left)

June Manning Thomas grew up in Orangeburg, S.C., where she desegregated the local white high school in 1964. She enrolled at Furman in the fall of 1967 as one of the university’s first African-American women, and while there, she joined the Southern Student Organizing Committee, an organization that fought for civil and student rights. In February 1968, she took part in a "sympathy march" to protest the Orangeburg Massacre, in which police killed three African-American students and wounded 28 more in her hometown. She left Furman after her freshman year to attend Michigan State University, where she majored in sociology. In 1977, she earned a Ph.D. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Michigan, where she now works as a professor.

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Thomas in May 2014: 

High school had been a very bad experience. There were a few good teachers, but overall there was a concerted effort to ostracize African-American students. They shunned and harassed us, and did everything they could to make us feel unwelcome….Lillian [Brock Flemming], Sarah [Reese], and I came to Furman as the first African-American women…Race relations at Furman weren’t as bad as in high school, and I found white friends. But most of the students [at Furman] had been socialized into the same Southern white Baptist Jim Crow culture as my high school classmates, and there were enough of the same problems…We [Furman’s African-American students] had our own social world. We got together to play cards and Scrabble. I’d play piano while Sarah practiced her singing. There was a very interior dynamic…Overall, on campus, I don’t think there was an atmosphere of exclusion but unfamiliarity. White students wouldn’t exclude us from their clubs and organizations, but they wouldn’t seek us out to join them, either.

I knew Joe [Vaughn] very well. We socialized a lot, and we were both members of the Southern Student Organizing Committee. He was a pioneer. He was the first at Furman, and I know it was very stressful for him. He had his own way of coping with the stress of being the first. He used humor and silliness and acting out—especially on the field as a cheerleader—to make light of it and diffuse it…That was the way he survived and coped with being the first.


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