“50 years and it still gets to me” – Cooke remembers Orangeburg Massacre

Laurens, SC – The front artwork on the 1968 South Carolina State yearbook showed a collection of yearbook covers from the previous 14 years, giving little indication to the tragedy represented on the first pages. There on an “In Memorium” page were pictured the three young men who died 50 years ago. Delano Middleton, Samuel Hammonds and Henry Smith are pictured along with a collage of headlines about the life-changing events of that winter.
      This week, Feb. 8, marked the 50th anniversary of the Orangeburg Massacre, the deadliest Civil Rights event in South Carolina.
     Its memory Thursday morning provided some tough moments for Susan McDaniel Cooke of Laurens, who was a 19-year-old junior at the college, and her brother, the late Ed McDaniel, who was a senior. Cooke fought back tears as she recalled details of those moments and the weeks afterward.
    “It’s been 50 years and it still gets to me,” she said, apologizing for her emotion. “50 years and I can still hear that  gunfire.”
     Having her big brother at the college had always offered Cooke a sense of security, including those few evenings earlier in the week when they were part of a group holding signs and protesting at the local bowling alley. It was early 1968 and Orangeburg was a small town with little to entertain college-age students. Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the owners, the Floyd brothers, had refused to allow black students to enter.
     “We could go to church, and sometimes we’d go to the movies and we just wanted to be able to go bowling and that’s all we were asking.” Cooke said. “Nobody had weapons. It was peaceful.”
      The night of the shooting the college president had told students to stay on campus, Cooke said. The boys had built a bonfire near the front entrance of the college, and the girls had been there near the entrance with their signs so passersby could see them. An earlier curfew forced the girls back in, however, so Cooke was in her dorm room when the shooting began. She knew her brother was still there.
     What she didn’t know was that troopers from the highway patrol had scaled the slight embankment leading to the campus property. Tensions escalated and within minutes, the troopers began firing on the unarmed students.
    “It sounded like firecrackers because there were so many shots. It probably didn’t last but 5 or 6 or maybe 10 seconds, but it felt like a long time,” Cooke said. She could see the bonfire from her dorm window and she knew her brother was there.
   “I knew my brother was down there, and I don’t know if I was breaking any rules,” she said, “but I ran to his dorm to try and find him.”
     Cooke points to a photo from those yearbook pages which chronicled the events. One photo shows the embankment at the edge of campus and three wreaths representing the young men who died.
    “There’s a building there now, but it was just a slight hill and that’s where the patrolmen came up,” Cooke said.
     In the days that followed, newspapers gave a wide variety of accounts of the event. Cooke said patrolmen claimed they only began firing when students shot at them first, but numerous investigations, including later by the FBI, showed that none of the students were armed with any weapons.
    Her own accounts came from her brother and his friends who escaped unharmed, even though almost 30 others, including the McDaniel’s cousin, Cleveland Sellers Jr., were taken to area hospitals. Many were wounded by the shotguns and others were beaten by officers as they tried to run.
    “The Smith boy had been shot and he was trying to climb a small hill to get away, and they grabbed him by the ankle to pull him back down and used billy clubs to beat him to death,” Cooke said. “I knew him,” she said, referring to Henry Smith, a college sophomore killed that night. “He was an upbeat young man and very nice. And the Orangeburg Times-Democrat ran a picture of the highway patrolmen still holding their sticks and standing over him. I think he was already dead. Samuel Hammonds was a freshman, but Cooke still gets most frustrated when she talks of Delano Middleton, a senior at nearby Wilkinson High School.
     “His mama worked at the college, and he was supposed to come meet her outside and walk her home because of the protests,” Cooke said. “He wasn’t over there. He was sitting on a trashcan over behind the Lowman building waiting on his mama and they shot him.”
     For some time the local papers emphasized the problems of the officers and fright of the townspeople and one photo angered her more than others.
“The Times-Democrat had a picture that showed the Salvation Army bringing coffee and donuts to the troopers,” Cooke said. “Coffee and donuts to the troopers who had just killed those boys.”
     The following morning, all the S.C. State students were sent home and they weren’t called back to school for three weeks. It was a comfort to her parents to have her and Ed home, but it was still a tough time while false reports were publicized and many were blaming the students.
     “The State newspaper called us,” Cooke said, tearing up at the memory. “They wanted us to tell them what had really happened. What could we say?”
     Eventually they returned to school, and the federal government sued the bowling alley owners for non-compliance with the desegregation law. S.C. State students did a walk on Columbia trying to convince then-Governor Robert McNair Sr. to apologize for the event. He died at 83 in 2007. He never apologized.
     Ed McDaniel graduated and went to work as an engineer at B.F. Shaw and Susan went back to S.C. State to complete her teaching degree, eventually living and teaching in Kershaw County for 30 years before returning to Laurens.
     Cooke said she doesn’t spend time thinking about the event a lot, but she admits it left her changed.
     “I became a little less trustful,” she said. “I saw newspapers put such a spin on what happened, so I didn’t believe everything I read after that. I determined if I wanted to know something I needed to see it for myself.”
     She also thinks the experience contributed to her brother’s entrance into the county’s political arena.
     “It’s something you don’t really ever forget,” Cooke said. “You don’t ever really get over it.”
Photos by Judith Brown and S.C. State Yearbook: The Bulldog, 1968; Mrs. Susan McDaniel Cook; Susan with another S.C. State friend and her brother, Ed McDaniel.

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