Choosing a topic or person to spotlight for this year’s Black History Month proved extremely challenging for me. Earlier this week, I watched The Education of Harvey Gantt on my local PBS station. This short documentary provided a brief biography of Gantt, the first African-American student to attend a formerly all-white school in South Carolina when he was admitted to Clemson in 1963. It also highlighted the challenges of a separate but equal education system. I am a native of South Carolina, and I vaguely remember hearing about Mr. Gantt, but not for this reason.
Harvey Gantt is also the first African-American Mayor of Charlotte, NC. He served two consecutive terms from 1983 to 1987. There are a number of data and significant inflection points that define a trail blazer; Gantt has no shortage of either. He was born in Charleston, SC in 1943, attended public schools and graduated second in his class from Burke High School. He received a national merit scholarship and enrolled at Iowa State University. In 1963, Gantt was admitted to Clemson University and earned an architectural degree with honors in 1965. In 1970 he received a Masters of City Planning degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). [Ref 1]
It was his decision to study architecture that set the course for his future. Although a merit scholar, the only school in South Carolina at the time that offered a degree in architecture was Clemson University. However, under the segregated education system in South Carolina, blacks were not allowed to attend public schools along with white students. Therefore, he applied and was accepted to Iowa State University and was a student from 1961 to 1962. After a long legal battle, Gantt was admitted to Clemson University in 1963.
Fast forward to today. About two weeks ago, my church hosted a Parade of Stars program for our members and their guests. One of the objectives of the program was to enlighten our youth, young adults, and newer congregants of the professional accomplishments and career “firsts” of several members. Most of these members are still living and attending worship services at First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, AZ.
Fifteen members were recognized on Sunday, February 16th for their notable accomplishments. After viewing the PBS program on Harvey Gantt, my chosen person to spotlight for Black History Month is Bestenia Campbell. Interestingly, Ms. Campbell’s story is similar to Harvey Gantt’s. She is a native of Richmond, VA, and graduated from high school in 1940. Although she was interested in a career in nursing, she delayed pursuing her education and enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1942.
According to an article that was published by the Arizona Informant in May 2013 [Ref 2], Campbell began basic training at Ft. Devens, MA. However, before her training was complete, the camp closed. She was sent to Iowa to complete her program. Later she and 12 other ladies were sent to Ft. Benning, GA, where they were attached to a paratroopers unit to set up a new camp for women.
Bestenia was placed in charge of the Post Exchange and did well in this assignment. However, her primary reason for joining the military was to obtain an assignment overseas. As time progressed, World War II came to an end before she had accumulated enough points to make her eligible for an overseas assignment. She was discharged from a New Jersey military camp in 1946.
Returning to civilian life, she applied to the University of Richmond. Instead of pursuing nursing, she was now interested in pursuing a degree in pharmacy or so she thought. At that time, the University of Richmond was not accepting black students. Her application to enroll was denied. Now, where have we heard that story before?
Subsequently, Bestenia applied to the School of Pharmacy at Howard University in Washington, DC. She was accepted and her tuition was paid under the G.I. Bill. An interesting footnote to this story is that the University of Richmond provided her with a monthly stipend to subsidize her education at Howard University, and sent a check every month during her five years of study there. Similarly, the State of South Carolina subsidized Mr. Gantt’s studies at Iowa State University.
While at Howard, Bestenia met and married her husband, the late Moses Campbell, a law student at the university. After receiving her pharmacy degree in 1951, she and her husband moved to East St. Louis, IL. She obtained her license to practice pharmacy and began working in a local drug store there in 1952. In 1956, she and her husband moved to Arizona. Bestenia is the first African-American woman to apply for a pharmacy license within the state. As she notes, “then I had to look for a job”.
She found employment at a drugstore in central Phoenix, and worked there until 1958 when she moved to the county hospital. She worked at the Maricopa County hospital until retirement in 1990, and continued working as a part-time employee until 1998. Around that time, her husband became ill. She spent most of her time caring for him until his death.
Today, Campbell still finds time to volunteer three days a week with FIBCO Family Services, the non-profit arm of First Institutional Baptist Church. She performs a number of social service functions including preparing meals for the homeless.
As activities for 2014’s Black History month draw to a close, I salute two African-American trail blazers – my native South Carolinian, Harvey Gantt, and my fellow congregant and Howard University alumna, Bestenia Campbell.
1. About Harvey Gantt, http://ganttcenter.org/web/page.asp?urh=HarveyGantt
2. They Also Served, A Salute to Women Who Served Our Country, Florence Darby for The Arizona Informant, May 29, 2013