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The John Henry McCray Project

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Photo courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C. 

About

 The John Henry McCray Project is dedicated to helping commemorate the substantial contributions that newspaper publisher and political activist John Henry McCray made to the Civil Rights movement in South Carolina and beyond during the mid-20th century.

This project is being conducted by faculty and student researchers at Allen University in Columbia, SC who are engaged in a 4-year research project (2020-2024) focused on developing educational programming and interpretive materials that raise awareness about the significant impact McCray's life and work had on the development of the Civil Rights movement in South Carolina and beyond. 

This research is supported through a grant from the African American Civil Rights History Grant program sponsored by the National Parks Service, Department of the Interior.

Photo courtesy of South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C. 

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Photo courtesy of Cecil J. Williams

One of the most important campaigns that McCray covered in his paper and helped the NAACP organize in SC was the Briggs v. Elliott trial, the first of five cases attacking the constitutionality of segregated schooling that were eventually tried by the US Supreme Court in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954.

 

On April 19 & 20, 2023, Allen University staged several performances of The People of Clarendon County, a play about the origins of the Briggs v. Elliott case written by Ossie Davis. The play was performed in historic Chappelle Auditorium, where an NAACP meeting that helped inspire this groundbreaking civil rights lawsuit was held in June of 1947.

The play was performed with a new cast in the spring of 2024 with performances again at Chappelle Auditorium and at Scotts Branch Middle High School, the school district where the lawsuit was initially filed.  

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SC Black Press Institute Symposium

The SC Black Press Institute Symposium was held on March 31, 2022 in Allen University's historic Chappelle Auditorium. The program explored the key role that newspapers such as The Lighthouse & Informer played in the development of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. The event brought together students, scholars, politicians, journalists, and other media professionals to discuss the significance of an ever-evolving media landscape for civil rights struggles of the past and present. 

 

Featured speakers include CNN analyst and former SC State House Representative Bakari Sellers; photographer and SC civil rights pioneer Cecil Williams; SC State House Representative and publisher Wendy Brawley; Black press scholar Sid Bedingfield; Free Times columnist Preach Jacobs; photojournalist Crush Rush; and political activist and influencer Mika Gadsden.

Plenary speaker Cecil J. Williams, civil rights photographer and activist

Plenary speaker Dr. Sid Bedingfield, author of Newspaper Wars: Civil Rights and White Resistance in South Carolina

SCPA Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

John Henry McCray was posthumously inducted into the SC Press Association Hall of Fame in the spring of 2021. The SCPA invited Allen University faculty and students engaged in working on the John Henry McCray Project to accept the award on his behalf. 

Learn more about the award at the SCPA website.

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L to R: Jen Madden, SCPA executive co-director; Autumn Phillips, Post and Courier editor in chief; Kevin Trumpeter, John McCray Project director; Danae Simmons and Shadell Frasier, Allen University student researchers

Photo: McCray with award, courtesy of Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C.

Willie Tolbert and the McCray Libel Trial

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The end of The Lighthouse & Informer's run as the premier Black news publication in South Carolina was hastened by a criminal libel suit brought against McCray in 1950.

McCray was charged after publishing the testimony of Willie Tolbert, who had recently been convicted of sexually assaulting a white woman in Greenwood, SC. Tolbert claimed the relationship was consensual and that he was warned by the Sheriff not to testify in court.

The alleged victim of the assault was the daughter of the County Solicitor who helped prosecute the assault case and filed the charges against McCray following Tolbert's execution. 

McCray was eventually sentenced to serve 3 months on a chain-gang in Newberry, SC. The financial strain of the prolonged legal action against McCray contributed to the insolvency of his newspaper, which ceased publication in 1954.

 

Faculty and students researched archival and online news sources to learn more about this story, which made national headlines at the time and served as a pivotal event in McCray's career. 

The results of this research were presented at the 2023 Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH) Conference.

“God is with me. I want all of you all to meet me in heaven.”

                 -Tolbert's last words prior to his execution

Oral History Project

Civil rights photojournalist Cecil Williams discusses his years working with John Henry McCray. Interview conducted on June 12, 2024 at the Cecil J. Williams South Carolina Civil Rights History Museum in Orangeburg, SC

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Waverly Neighborhood
Civil Rights History
Virtual Tour

McCray's Lighthouse Publishing Company was located in the Waverly community of Columbia, SC. With two historically Black colleges--Allen University and Benedict College--and institutions like the Good Samaritan-Waverly Hospital, the Carver Theater, Leevy Funeral Home and many other black-owned businesses, the neighborhood was home to many of Columbia's Black professionals and civic leaders. Take the virtual tour to learn more about the world McCray lived in, the people he worked with, and the causes he wrote for.

McCray Learning Resources

Bios:

 

​Digital Archives:

Videos:

Contact Us!

Kevin Trumpeter, PhD

Dean of Arts and Humanities

Allen University

1530 Harden Street

Columbia, SC 29204

803-255-3782

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