Dr. Eric Lapin, Lecturer of Music in the Department of Performing Arts, will be the first to tell you that music and politics are often interwoven.

Ray Charles - TAPS Yearbook 1963

The 1963 edition of TAPS displays a photo of musician Ray Charles performing at Clemson College.
Image Credit: TAPS Yearbook / Clemson University

Throughout the centuries, both have affected each other in nations and communities across the globe. His latest research project, “Music and Integration at Clemson College,” examined such a relationship in Clemson during the era of segregation, and subsequently, integration in the early 1960s.

The project started with author Vince Jackson’s book, The Littlejohn’s Grill Story. It chronicles the history of a restaurant, hotel, and performance venue known as Littlejohn’s Grill that operated in the city of Clemson for decades during the era of Jim Crow. Like other performing arts establishments on what was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” Littlejohn’s served an African-American community that was barred from entry to most other establishments in the city.

The circuit itself, named after the cuisine and denoting the informality of its venues, ran along the eastern seaboard from Texas to New York and featured famous African-American musicians. In its heyday, stops along the Chitlin’ Circuit hosted B.B. King, Little Richard, James Brown, and many others.

Lapin had been using Jackson’s book in his Music and Politics course for several years. For students, it was springboard for a wider conversation about the intersection of the two subjects. For Lapin, it was the starting point for academic inquiry. “The project actually didn’t start out as this music and politics narrative,” Lapin said. “We got the initial grant from the Humanities Advancement Board and wanted to look at Clemson’s role on the Chitlin’ Circuit. We were looking at the performers who stopped through here. But what started to emerge was this fascinating story of its relationship with integration.”

He began the research two summers ago with Dr. Meredith McCarroll, a former member of the English faculty at Clemson who is now the Director of Writing and Rhetoric at Bowdoin College. Focusing their exhibit on the period immediately around integration at Clemson College in 1962 and 1963, the pair combed through the Strom Thurmond Institute’s archives and special collections to study TAPS yearbooks, Central Dance Association and Central Spirit documents, and other materials from administrators and representatives on campus.

Before integration, many on-campus organizations would arrange for African American musicians to perform at special functions. But while those artists were allowed to perform on campus, they had to find lodging and food elsewhere, sometimes traveling as far away as Greenville. Some would stay at Littlejohn’s Grill.

“We were just fascinated that, after we would come across a big-name performer on campus, we would almost immediately find some politically charged hate letter or piece of propaganda that was being circulated on campus,” Lapin said. “And we started to put it all together: this was all happening at the exact same time.”

Segregation at Clemson College would end with the admission of Harvey Gantt, the institution’s first African-American student, in 1963. But while research revealed meticulous coordination between Clemson President R.C. Edwards and Governor Earnest “Fritz” Hollings to avoid physical violence, the event still attracted racist opposition. The exhibit features some of those hateful written responses sent to Clemson’s administration.

Lapin said the exhibit seeks to highlight the complexity of desegregation at Clemson and the relationship between performers on campus and the political dispute that was going on at the time.

“I hope people get a sense of the musical history on campus,” he said. “I hope they get a sense of the African-American performers who have been through here and the complexity of the relationship between music and the politics of integration here on Clemson’s campus.”

The exhibit is on display in the Brooks Center Lobby through Friday, December 2, and is open from 1 to 5 pm on weekdays, and 90 minutes before Brooks Center productions.

Lapin presented portions of the exhibit last year at the Clemson Music Festival. After its presentation at the Brook Center, the exhibit will be displayed at the Clemson Area African-American Museum.