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Whittaker family’s legacy celebrated at SC State Miller F. Whittaker Library’s anniversary

Author: Sam Watson, Director of University Relations|Published: May 30, 2024|All News, Faculty & Staff News

The Miller F. Whittaker Library
ORANGEBURG, S.C. – The Whittaker family’s legacy is etched in South Carolina State University’s history in several ways, most notably for 56 years on the Miller F. Whittaker Library.

The university celebrated that fact on April 5 by observing the Whittaker Library’s anniversary in an event at the I.P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium.

The featured speaker of the event was Elizabeth Whittaker-Walker, a great-great-niece of Dr. Miller Fulton Whittaker, SC State’s third president, for whom the library is named. She was among 12 Whittaker family members who attended the event. She detailed eight generations of her family while addressing her family’s lengthy history with the university.

She began her presentation with a moment of silence to recognize her enslaved ancestors.

 “In Ghana, West Africa, there’s an Adinkra symbol called Sankofa. It means ‘go back and fetch it,” she said. “In other words, in order to know where you’re going, you must know where you’ve been.”

Whittaker-Walker also spoke of her family’s commitment to education.

“In just about any Whittaker household you visit, you’re going to find a lot of books,” she said. “Growing up, it wasn’t a matter of whether or not you were going to go to college, that was assumed. You just had to decide which one.”

As Whittaker-Walker noted in her remarks, her great-great-uncle was not the only member of the family who contributed to SC State’s history. Soon after the institution’s founding in 1896, Whittaker-Walker’s great-great-grandfather and President Whittaker’s father, Johnson Chesnut Whittaker, was the commandant of the campus military unit from 1901-1903.

Johnson Chesnut Whittaker was one of the first three Black cadets to attend West Point Military Academy, but he was wrongly dismissed from the academy in the late 1800s. He was posthumously awarded his commission by President Bill Clinton in 1995.

Whittaker-Walker is a great-granddaughter of Johnson Chesnut Whittaker Jr., President Whittaker's brother. She is a granddaughter of Peter “Pete” Harrison Whittaker, who became dean of SC State’s Law School when the founding dean, Dr. Benner Turner, became the university’s fourth president following the death of President Whittaker in 1949.

To answer audience questions, Whittaker-Walker was joined at the podium by her cousin, Judge Ulysses Whittaker Boykin, one of the founders of Harvard Law School’s Black Law Student Association and a longtime jurist in Michigan, whom she affectionately called “Uncle Uly.”

 “Thank you for hosting such a wonderful event,” Whittaker-Walker said in reflecting on the anniversary celebration. “South Carolina State will always hold a special place in our hearts and this day will be cherished for many years to come.”

Her great-great-uncle left an indelible legacy at SC State.

Miller F. Whittaker
A Sumter, South Carolina, native, President Whittaker earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Kansas State College in 1913. That same year, he joined the faculty of SC State -- then Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural, and Mechanical College -- and taught mechanical drawing and physics. After service in World War I, he became dean of the mechanical arts program at the college.

He designed several campus buildings and supervised student labor in their construction. In 1928 Kansas State. awarded Whittaker a professional degree in architecture after he submitted the drawings of Hodge Hall as his thesis.

During the anniversary celebration, Dr. William H. Hine, a retired SC State history professor and author of “The History of SC State University,” provided a historical prospective about President Whittaker and the library.

Hine spoke of the challenges President Whittaker faced when he became president in 1932 following the death of Dr. Robert Shaw Wilkinson, SC State’s second president.  President Whittaker led the institution during the depression years and sometimes did not have enough money to make payroll.

Like so many other HBCUs of its day, the Colored Normal was essentially a high school, Hine said. Despite the challenges, President Whittaker and the faculty were able to transform SC State from the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina into South Carolina State College.

Like so many other HBCUs of its day, the Colored Normal colleges essentially were high schools according to Dr. Hine. Additionally, President Whittaker was charged with establishing the law school for Blacks at SC State, and he was intimately involved with the construction the campus’ first library building, Wilkinson Hall.

Following 13th SC State President Alexander Conyers’ concluding remarks, a buffet luncheon was provided.

A video and more photos from the event can be viewed at the Miller F. Whittaker Library’s website.

Dr. Ruth Hodges, dean of the Miller F. Whittaker Library, provided information for this article.