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Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina


Winthrop University’s First African American Student

On July 20, 1964, Cynthia Plair Roddey began attending graduate classes at Winthrop College, making history as the first African American student to be admitted to Winthrop.


Cynthia Harriette Plair was born in Rock Hill, SC on April 6, 1940 to Isaiah Burris Plair and Ruth Jordan Plair. In 1961, she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Religious Education, and Psychology from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, NC. She married James Roddey of Catawba, SC on December 23, 1961.


By the spring of 1964, Mrs. Roddey and her husband had two small sons.  She was working as an interim teacher at Emmett Scott High School and expressed a desire to complete the school librarian certification that she had begun as an undergraduate. She considered Atlanta University or Benedict College in Columbia, the closest African American institutions. However, with two small children, those two schools posed major logistical problems due to their distance from Rock Hill. A colleague suggested Winthrop because desegregation of higher education had recently begun in SC with integration at Clemson. A group of African American teachers was in the process of trying to apply to Winthrop for graduate studies, and so Mrs. Roddey applied. 


While waiting for a response, she was discouraged by a white school district administrator who said that graduate school would just teach her “a lot of stuff she would not use or need.” Undaunted, Roddey was accepted to Winthrop’s second summer school term and resolved to enroll. Because of the national and local unrest occurring as black citizens pressed for civil rights, Mrs. Roddey felt apprehensive about safety for both her and her family. A few days before she was to begin class, her neighbors assured her that they would keep a 24-hour watch on her home. Two of the first African American Rock Hill policemen served as her escorts to campus the first morning. Roddey arrived early and her registration went smoothly. While Winthrop was prepared for any disturbance, the only disorder that was noted were two unauthorized vehicles that were turned away at the gate without incident.


Although Roddey’s initial entrance was untroubled, she often felt unwelcome at the school. She was usually ignored by other students and rarely engaged in conversation with them. Echoing the experiences of other early African American students, Roddey was never invited to study groups, lunch or campus social events. Roddey’s friends on campus were former schoolmates who were Winthrop employees and some white staff members and faculty who made a special effort to insure her success as a student.


Roddey received a Master of Arts in Teaching degree in Library Science and English from Winthrop College in August 1967. She went on to teach for 40 years, as well as earn her Doctor of Ministry degree from Mid-Atlantic Theological Seminary in 1990.


Cynthia Plair Roddey paved the way for other African American students to enroll and graduate. Her pioneering spirit helped make Winthrop the inclusive institution of higher learning it is today.

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