FORT MEADE, Md. -- For the past 70 years, the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at South Carolina State University has stood steadfast in its commitment to training and equipping future leaders with the skills necessary to be successful in the U.S. Army.

To date, 22 graduates of the school have achieved the rank of general officer in the U.S. military, with fifteen of those commissioned through the school's ROTC program.

Moreover, the ROTC program averages about 160 cadets among its members and is recognized as one of the largest producers of minority officers for the United States Army.

Leadership within SCSU and its ROTC program pride themselves on producing the best minority military leaders across the Army, said Lt. Col. Folden Peterson, who serves now as the program's Professor of Military Science.

However, the pure value of the ROTC program is predicated in the university's legacy.

EQUAL SOLDIERS, EQUAL CITIZENS

Formally known as the South Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical College, SCSU was established in 1896. Today, it is one of nearly 100 historically black colleges and universities in the United States.

Initially, the school struggled to provide agricultural and mechanical training to generations of black youngsters. After some time, the school was able to deploy farm and home demonstration agents to help educate impoverished black families, according to school sources.

More than fifty years later, on July 1, 1947, the department of military science was established at SCSU, Peterson said. At the time, the program was mandatory for all able-bodied freshman and sophomore male students. Veterans with one year of military service were excused.

A competent staff of three officers, four non-commissioned officers, a civilian assistant and property custodian lead a cadet population of 248 in the program's first year. By 1949, six received an Army commission. Among those new second lieutenants were Richard A. Williams, William J. Nelson, Spencer Bracey, Fred Dowdy, George Wright, and Rufus C. Streater.

Those six are the first of more than 2,100 that have received military commissions through the program since the first class in 1947, Peterson said. Additionally, those six second lieutenants, were part of establishing a foundation for the ROTC program's DNA.

More significantly, when those six officers first donned their uniforms, they joined the collective voice of a growing minority community serving in the U.S. military.

Even with the July 26, 1948 signing of Executive Order 9981 by President Harry S. Truman, which abolished racial discrimination in the U.S. military, there was still a lot of work to be done to end racial segregation in the United States.

During the 1950s and 1960s, black Americans continually dealt with issues stemming from racial segregation and discrimination. Students at SCSU and the ROTC cadets as well, would be part of the great cultural changes that happened during the American Civil Rights Movement. During that time, students at the school participated in civil rights demonstrations and protests, as did students around the nation.

For SCSU, the quest for racial equality hit a critical point in February 1968. During that time, students gathered in protest seeking the desegregation of a local bowling alley. The protest lasted for several days, often turning violent or destructive.

It was on February 8, 1968, that the protest took a turn for the worse. That evening, students started a bonfire during a gathering on SCSU. The fire forced a police officer to respond.

As the officer attempted to put out the fire, a piece of banister was thrown in his direction, injuring the officer. As tensions escalated, a state highway patrolman fired his gun in the air in an attempt to calm the crowd. The effort was misguided, however, as other state patrolmen opened fire in response, even though none of the students were armed.

The result of the incident left three young black students dead and 27 others wounded. The Orangeburg Massacre, as it was called, was the first of its kind on any American college campus, and it fueled the argument for racial equality across the U.S.

Peterson said student struggles for racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s are the basis of a kind of cultural DNA at the school that has been a part of every student and ROTC cadet who has attended since. The courage of those who fought for equality then, he said, still influences those who attend today.

"Iron sharpens iron -- so one person sharpens another," Peterson said. "Countless individuals have provided the shoulders on which (cadets) can stand. Understand that if it were not for them, a lot of what we cherish today would be non-existent.

"That's a part of our history," he continued. "What makes us stronger is knowing that the young men and women that come to this campus come here for a purpose, opportunity. An opportunity to make their lives better. ROTC, over the years, has changed the lives of a large group of people. Some of our students come from limited means, but ROTC was a springboard for them to change their lives."

BUILDING EXCELLENCE THROUGH ROTC

For many students at SCSU, taking the first step towards excellence is one of the hardest things they will ever do, Peterson said.

"We've talked to our cadets about what it means to be a part of the Long Green Line," said Peterson, referencing all that serve in the U.S. Army. "Every time you step, it's a step toward excellence."

Many of the students that attend the school are the first in their families to attend college, Peterson said. At times, students have to leave a troubled past to embark on their new college career.

"Students build resiliency through all the steps they took to get them here," he said. "It is all about living up to the expectations of the program. And we ask them how they are positioning themselves to have opportunities. It's about making your own decisions, making the right decisions, and living with those decisions that you've made, regardless if they were good or bad."

To help all cadets find success early and often within the program, Peterson helped create the "Bulldog Philosophy," an anagram list that requires cadets do the following:

-- Be Physically Fit, a Self-Starter, Self-Confident, an Independent Thinker
-- Utilize every opportunity to improve your position, every day
-- Live the Army Values
-- Life Long Learner
-- Do the right thing always
-- Own your decisions, period
-- Give yourself the opportunity to make your own path
-- Recognize Strengths and Weaknesses
-- Open a book, open your mind
-- Train, Trust, Empower
-- Communicate Well: Verbally & Nonverbally

The Army's ROTC program serves as a college elective for undergraduate and graduate students and provides leadership training for success in any career field.

The program produces approximately 60 percent of the second lieutenants who join the active Army, Reserve and National Guard. Currently, more than 40 percent of active duty Army general officers were commissioned through ROTC.

Today, ROTC is offered at more than 1,100 colleges and universities nationwide and provides merit-based scholarships that can pay up to the full cost of tuition for students, including those at SCSU, Peterson said.

"We are the best ROTC program," Peterson said. "That's in the eye of the beholder, but I have to think that. Our DNA goes all the way back to 1947, when six lieutenants opened the door to create an opportunity for themselves, during a time when little or no opportunities could be found."

Overall, Peterson considers himself blessed to have the opportunity to serve as the professor of military science at SCSU.

"Every day I'm pinching myself. What an honor to be able to shape the young minds of future leaders in the United States Army," he said. "I'm not leaving my mark on them, but I'm giving them food for thought. I'm offering them an example of what it is like to live with a fire in their belly and a desire to win, every single day."