Dr. Henrie Monteith Treadwell, '65: "On to Life"
in June 2012
Dr. Henrie Monteith Treadwell, '65, is recognized nationally and internationally as an expert in public health, but as the first African-American student to be admitted to the University of South Carolina in September of 1963, she also holds a special place in history. Dr. Treadwell continues to work for equality. Her strong desire to get an education and her battle to do so at Carolina was not a burden she bore for herself, but for the sake of justice and progress.
“It was not important for me to be admitted,” Dr. Treadwell says. “It was important that all African Americans meeting admissions criteria be admitted. Ending discrimination based on color or race was the real issue for me. I was just a ‘wedge,’ and I had a supportive family and community. I believe that people need to stand for something that may be greater than they are, or would be. Right is right, but it is not achieved unless a few everyday people, like me, stand and say ‘enough’ to tradition.”
Dr. Treadwell earned her degree in biology from Carolina in 1965, and later earned her master’s in biology from Boston University and her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Atlanta University. She completed post-doctoral studies in public health at Harvard University. While she has won numerous awards for her outstanding contributions to the field of medicine, her desire to get an education at the University of South Carolina helped pave the way for future generations.
The Road to Admission
Dr. Treadwell grew up in Columbia. The civil rights era helped bring about change and equal opportunity, but it didn’t come easily. In January of 1963, South Carolina was the only state in which integration in public higher education had not occurred. She applied for admission while a senior in high school, hoping to enter the university in the fall of 1962. Despite an outstanding academic record, she was denied admission. While first attending Notre Dame College in Maryland, she filed a lawsuit to gain entrance as a transfer student and endured the long process.
“I think that everyone knew that my acceptance to the University was inevitable,” Dr. Treadwell says. “But there are issues when there are too few brave people, other than the judges, who say, 'Enough!’ Others fear public retribution. I do understand the need for social acceptance, so I have no problem with people going through all of the right steps. I do believe that beyond the integration of the University of South Carolina that there is still a need for a few brave women and men who will break through the fear and lead our nation to equality. We are not there yet.”
On July 10, 1963, Judge J. Robert Martin of Greenville ordered the University to admit Henrie in the fall semester. An appeal from the University was denied. Two other male students entered once her lawsuit had opened the doors. On September 11, 1963, Henrie Dobbins Monteith, Robert G. Anderson, and James L. Solomon, Jr., were admitted peacefully to the last flagship Southern state university that remained racially segregated.
“I certainly thought that once I was admitted that I might not have to attend,” Dr. Treadwell says. “But once I learned that the institution would not open the doors if I did not cross over the threshold, the matter was settled.”
There was concern that if Henrie did not enroll after being admitted, then the next African-American seeking admission would have to go through the same lengthy legal process all over again. It was important to Henrie that she followed through with enrolling even though she became hesitant about attending after such a tiresome experience of fighting to get in and waiting to find out if she would.
“I was not particularly elated, and I came to the internal understanding that I had to enter,” Dr. Treadwell says. “It was my duty to me and to the community of those, black and white, who wanted this change. A lot of racism may have been directed toward me, but I do not pay attention to juvenile or ill-informed behavior, then, or now. I do not fear.”
Dr. Treadwell says she was treated “very well” at the University once she was admitted.
Her best memories are those of her friends from those days, and not surprisingly, the classes themselves. She simply enjoyed learning, so “any class was a good class.”
Becoming One of the Greats in Her Field
Dr. Treadwell is well known worldwide in the field of public health and access to care by the under-served, particularly men of color. Her interest in learning about the nature of things led her down that path. She is currently a professor in the department of community health and preventive medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, where she works to improve access to medical care for those who are under-served or uninsured. She served for 16 years as the program director at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Michigan, where she was responsible for initiatives to improve access to health coverage and services in the United States and southern Africa.
“My job allows me to work on issues that are important to me,” Dr. Treadwell says. “I feel that I can make a difference.”
Dr. Treadwell has received numerous fellowships and awards, including the University of South Carolina College of Arts and Sciences' Distinguished Service Award in 2006, and she has served as a consultant to many national organizations, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and the Department of Health and Human Services Health Careers Opportunity Program. Dr. Treadwell also served as the chair of the division of mathematics and natural sciences at Morris Brown College from 1975-85.
With all of her achievements, Dr. Treadwell is quick to say that more work needs to be done to ensure justice and equality for all.
“The one thing I hope people remember is to use their opportunity to change things that are still not right in our society,” Dr. Treadwell says. “Have a good life, but stay involved with what’s going on. I think you can use adversity as a stepping stone rather than a roadblock.”
Dr. Treadwell is a widow, proud mother of three children and also a grandmother of three. Over the years, Dr. Treadwell has been asked to be a public speaker about her experiences. She returns to her alma mater from time to time, and despite some hardships nearly 40 years ago, she speaks proudly of her alma mater and what “My Carolina” means to her.
“The University allowed me to develop independence,” Dr. Treadwell said in a recent interview with College of Arts & Sciences. “I felt safe, and I felt able to do what I wanted to do. I think that’s something I carry today. There needs to be some sense of safety, but also freedom to act, freedom to walk the path that you choose. I don’t know that I would have come to that place without being at the University. Did I get a good education? I did! I am so proud of what that institution gave me, and gives to so many others, and I hope that in some ways, I can give back.”
Having been part of one of the most significant milestones in the university’s history, Dr. Treadwell sees an institution that is reaching its potential for greatness.
“As I go to the University now and listen to faculty and interact with students, it’s one of the best kept secrets in the world,” Dr. Treadwell said. “It’s outstanding in quality. I want people to know the story and go to be on that beautiful campus and see the rich diversity of that campus. It’s an outstanding institution. One would never have thought that the little institution all those years ago has grown into a powerhouse. I have been all around the world. I’ve seen other institutions. So I know of what I speak. It’s a treasure.”
“On to life” was the way she felt upon earning her degree from Carolina. Many who followed her footsteps through the University doors can proudly say the same.