When Dr. Carol Swain spoke at the launch of 1776 Unites in February, she drew knowing chuckles from fellow scholars with her depiction of her college years:
“I didn’t see myself as handicapped. I was female. I was black. I was poor. I did not see any of that until graduate school. And then I learned that I was oppressed. I was poor. I was black. That I was a female and that I couldn’t do any of the things I had already done.”
What Carol Swain had already done by the time she reached grad school was exceptional, considering the dim prospects and institutional hurdles she faced growing up. But as Carol has often said, where you start does not have to determine where you end up.
Consider the grim stage set for Carol as a young girl growing up in the rural South. Her story begins in a battered two-room shack in Bedford, Virginia.
Her father, a third-grade dropout, disappeared from Carol’s life at an early age. Her mother was a high school dropout raising 12 children. Carol seemed destined for a life of poverty, government dependence and despair.
Yet she found a way out.
Interwoven through Carol’s life story is the power of words to shape the course of one’s life. And it was the power of words that convinced Carol to change the trajectory of her life; to find the strength within to change what would be her life script.
The second oldest of 12 children, Carol describes always feeling unloved in a home filled with conflict and sadness. There was never enough. No family dinners, no bedtime stories or warm baths. The family’s tiny shanty had no running water. Carol and her siblings all bathed in the same gray water that had been warmed up in a pot on the stove. The older children slept on the kitchen floor. They had no shoes. Seemingly ordinary necessities and comforts did not exist for her struggling family.
There were terrifying moments too, like the time her stepfather chased her mother with an ax and Carol and her siblings tried to stop him, grabbing at his legs in an effort to hold him back and protect their mother.
Life shifted at age 12 when Carol’s mother moved her children to the city and went on welfare. Social workers and government checks became a way of life and, in Carol’s view, a trap. She came to see social welfare programs as a kind of quicksand sucking away one’s self-worth and instilling a festering sense of entitlement.
Carol dropped out of high school after the 8th grade and, in a desperate attempt to escape her troubled home life, married at age 16. By the age of 20 she was a broke, mother of two who had suffered through two abusive marriages and the loss of a third child to crib death. The shame and hopelessness plunged Carol into a deep depression.
At age 21, Carol began her climb out of the darkness. Her life began to change through the power of words—a simple message delivered by a doctor at Roanoke Memorial Hospital where Carol had landed after a suicide attempt. The doctor told Carol something no one had ever said to her: that she was intelligent and attractive and that she could do more with her life. It was a message that changed the course of her life.
Carol found the strength to file for divorce and get a job as an aide at a nursing home. And that is when she received another message that reinforced the possibility of a new direction, a new way. An orderly at the nursing home told Carol that she was smarter than most of the people he had met in college and suggested that she go to college. That possibility seemed so far-fetched, so implausible for someone with her background. Going to college was something she had never considered, a possibility she had not had the luxury to imagine.
But Carol decided that a college degree could indeed be her way out—and up. She set her sights on earning a GED. Hard work and perseverance paid off and Carol was accepted to Roanoke College in Virginia.
After being told by school administrators that she was not eligible for certain academic scholarships because their endowments had no black contributors, Carol decided to create a merit-based scholarship for minorities to help future students who found themselves in her position. She raised $100,000 the first month. Today the Constance J. Hamlar Scholarship is funded by up to a $500,000 endowment.
Carol rose to the top of her class at Roanoke, graduating magna cum laude. She had earned her way to college and did not want anyone to attribute her achievements in education to affirmative action, which she viewed as a disincentive for some blacks to apply themselves.
It was during those college years that she first became interested in conservative thought. She began reading the work of writers like Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman and Edward Banfield. Their writings resonated with her and shaped her future thinking.
Because Carol was an honor student, professors noticed her and encouraged her to continue her education. She decided to pursue a master’s degree in political science at Virginia Tech and then a Ph. D from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and eventually a master’s degree in law from Yale University.
Carol went on to become a university professor, law professor, award-winning political scientist, acclaimed author, nationally known political commentator, and public speaker.
As Carol has said, your attitude and what you believe are far more important than race or gender. Everyone has the potential to overcome disadvantages.
Carol certainly has…and we are honored to have her share her wisdom and insights with us at 1776 Unites.