By Bob Holmes
When Peter Spencer enrolled at Columbia Bible College (CBC) in 1963, he made history. Spencer is black. His admission to CBC, now Columbia International University (CIU), made CIU the first institution of higher education in South Carolina to voluntarily admit a black student.
Spencer, a Jamaican who attended CIU from 1963-1965 for graduate studies, returned to Columbia to address a Chapel service on Feb. 7 as part of CIU’s commemoration of Black History Month. His appearance drew local media attention.
In the early 1960s, as the federal government began to mandate the integration of Southern public colleges, the CIU Board of Trustees was already grappling with the issue. According the book, “This Side of Heaven – Race, Ethnicity, and Christian Faith” by Robert J. Priest and Alvaro L. Nieves, the board voted in March 1963 that “in the future no one be refused admission to the Bible College on the basis of race solely,” becoming the first white institution of higher education in South Carolina to voluntarily desegregate.
Spencer, a black Jamaican, began classes at CIU on Sept. 5, 1963. At that time, CIU President Dr. G. Allen Fleece reported to the board, “our first Negro student, Peter Spencer from Jamaica, had the highest recommendation and has proven to be everything we could desire.”
In an interview during his return to Columbia, Spencer said he got along “splendidly” with his fellow CIU students, but there was “a little tension at first.”
“But even those who may have had some reservations at the beginning became my best friends,” Spencer recalled.
It was different for Spencer off campus. At first he had no place to worship on Sunday mornings because the white churches with whom CIU had a relationship would not accept him. Nor could he join the travelling Ambassador Choir because his color would have kept him out of some venues. But etched in his memory was the day he went to town with his white classmates and was refused service at a restaurant being told, “We don’t serve your kind here.” His classmates tried to intervene to no avail. So they ordered for him and they ate in the car.
Spencer, who was not discriminated against in Jamaica, called that experience, “shocking, humiliating. I felt insulted.”
But in his Chapel address to the CIU student body, Spencer said, "These experiences were allowed by God to mold me and to make me strong to face the challenges of life, so I am grateful."
Spencer would go on to become a pastor and missionary statesman in his home country, currently serving as a member of the board of Jamaica Theological Seminary and chairman of the board of the Jamaica Bible College and Community Institute.
In 1964, CIU would accept its first African-American student, one of the first private schools in South Carolina to do so.
Listen to Dr. Peter Spencer’s Chapel address at:
For local media coverage of Spencer’s visit, check out:
Note: Dr. Peter Spencer was the first black student of African descent to enroll at CIU, not the first African-American.