Bloodline: The Orangeburg Massacre

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Almost 40 years after a protest near S.C. State left three dead, the namesake of one of those victims has returned to fulfill both of their dreams


ORANGEBURG — A man whose face belongs to a ghost walks the campus at SC State. A man whose name belongs to a statistic strolls with confidence, free of threats, mired in beautiful anonymity.

His name, Zachary Delano Middleton, is almost identical to that of the ghost. His face — the square jaw, the pointed nose — and powerful shoulders remind older family members of a young man whose life was cut short by racial strife.

On Feb. 8, 1968, a 17-year-old football and basketball standout named Delano Middleton was one of three men shot and killed by state troopers near the SC State campus. The ordeal came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre, a bloody end to a three-day protest over the segregation of an Orangeburg bowling alley.

Delano Middleton, who died four months before his scheduled graduation from Wilkinson High, planned to play football at SC State.

He never got the chance.

Nearly 40 years later, Zachary Middleton, a 19-year-old who carries his great-uncle’s name and many of his physical features, is taking the first steps toward doing what Delano Middleton could not: play football at SC State. 

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This is a story about homecoming. It is about recognizing mistakes and doing what it takes to correct them. It is about a football player’s determination to prove the obstacles that slowed him cannot defeat him. It is about a town’s hard lesson, that blood must sometimes be spilled to underscore the lengths to which some were willing to chase equality.

And it is about a promise Delano (pronounced duh-LAY-no) Middleton made to his mother, Reather Bell Middleton, that his basketball and football commitments and a thriving social scene at nearby SC State would never prevent him from returning home before dinner.

It was a promise Delano kept until the night he walked past a line of state troopers and sneaked a glimpse of the commotion he had heard about the three previous days — that more than 200 blacks had fed a bonfire and protested outside the All Star Bowling Lane because it admitted whites only. It was there, on the night of Feb. 5, 1968, that a crowd of blacks pushed against a line of whites, separated by glass double doors, and stared into the eyes of their differences.

Three nights later, something spooked the troopers. They fired shotgun rounds into the restless crowd. At least 27 were shot. And three more — Delano and SC State students Samuel Hammond and Henry Smith — were dead. 

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Zachary Middleton’s home was behind him, nearly 550 miles south. After graduating in 2005 from Orangeburg-Wilkinson, the former Bruins linebacker signed a football scholarship with Navy in Annapolis, Md.

Zachary, who was born and raised in Orangeburg, seldom had left. Football, though, was a family tradition. So was leaving home. Zachary’s father, Alonzo Middleton, played four seasons at fullback for Michigan State, and Zachary’s older brother, Alonzo Jr., was a highly-recruited linebacker who signed a scholarship in 2004 to play at USC (he remains a student there but has given up football).

Leaving Orangeburg was uncomfortable. But it seemed necessary.

After all, Zachary was certain his apprehensions would subside; he would grow into the distance from home and the two-mile runs every morning and the requirement that he spend the years after graduation on an aircraft carrier on some distant ocean.

Still, it was football he loved. Everything else — the endless classes and studying coordinates and memorizing the names and routes of warships — seemed little more than a path toward military service, when all he wanted was a marriage of education and football.

“It’s definitely set up for you to be a Naval officer,” Zachary says. “I didn’t want to leave because it was too hard. I didn’t want to leave because it broke me. That’s why I stayed as long as I did. At one moment, I was just like, ‘This isn’t something that I really have a love for and really have a desire to do.’ I left before I was too deep in it.”

Alonzo Middleton Sr. said his younger son was distracted and frustrated. Zachary’s grades suffered, and his ambition was wounded. Leaving the academy and returning home seemed the best option — but that option had consequences. There was no guarantee of receiving a football scholarship from SC State, a Division I-AA school that plays in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. After coaches told Zachary he would get a chance to play — but with plenty of conditions — the 19-year-old made up his mind.

After eight months at Navy, Zachary was headed back to Orangeburg. 

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Life in Orangeburg follows tradition. It follows cues and traits, passed from older generations to eager youngsters.

One of those youngsters was Alonzo Middleton, a 12-year-old who idolized his uncle Delano. Alonzo, like most who knew Delano, called the 17-year-old “Bump,” a nickname born from a bout of acne that Delano could not shake. Alonzo shared a room with his uncle in Bump’s mother’s farmhouse. They spent their nights discussing football and the future ... and how one figured into the other.

Alonzo followed Bump to community football fields on Sundays, watching while the older boys tackled one another. Alonzo volunteered to be a ball boy at Wilkinson High football games so that he could watch games for free — and catch a glimpse of his uncle, the team’s starting center.

“He had a whole lot to do with why I played football,” says Alonzo Middleton, who played on Michigan State’s 1978 Big Ten championship team. “I was always proud of Bump. I wanted to be just like him.”

Three months after the end of Bump’s senior season, the 17-year-old missed dinner. After basketball practice at Wilkinson, which was less than a mile from SC State, Bump wandered to the university campus to socialize and grab a sandwich.

Hours later, at about 11 p.m., the phone rang at the home of Alonzo’s grandmother. She was needed at the SC State infirmary. Something was said about a protest on campus ... and a shooting near downtown ... and hurry, because Bump was losing a lot of blood.

The next morning, Alonzo’s grandmother returned home. She shared the news with Alonzo that Bump had been shot multiple times as he ran away from gunfire.

“Bump was supposed to come home that night,” says Alonzo, now 49. “Thirty-something years later, there’s a void. There’s always going to be a void.” 

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Bump Middleton died in the SC State infirmary, hours after being in the worst place at the worst time. His crime was curiosity. His punishment was death.

On Feb. 5, 1968, students from SC State and nearby Claflin University gathered outside the All Star Bowling Lane, Orangeburg’s only bowling alley and one of the town’s only remaining segregated establishments. The next night a fight broke out between blacks and whites; nine black students and one police officer required hospital visits to treat their injuries.

Police smothered a bonfire a night later and warned protesters to not return. They returned anyway on Feb. 8 and rebuilt the bonfire. A fire truck arrived near the center of the protest, which had moved away from the bowling alley and close to the SC State campus, and authorities again tried to smother the fire.

This time, the crowd retaliated, throwing debris at a group of state troopers and national guardsmen that, according to historical accounts, numbered about 70 officers. One officer was hit in the face by a thrown banister rail, and he fell to the ground bleeding. Another officer pointed a gun toward the sky and fired a round.

Other officers heard the gunshot and pointed their guns — pistols and short-barreled shotguns — at the protesters, many of whom turned and ran. At 10:33 p.m., the troopers fired into the crowd for about 10 seconds; 30 protesters were shot, many of them in their backs and sides.

Henry Smith, a 20-year-old college student, died after he was shot five times in the side and back. Samuel Hammond died after being shot once in the back. Delano “Bump” Middleton, who was on campus visiting friends, was shot in the hip, the thigh, the side, the chest, and three times in the forearm. Bump was taken to the infirmary, where officials called the home of his mother.

When she arrived, Bump asked his mother to read him a passage from the Bible: the 23rd Psalm, which asks the almighty for comfort and protection. Bump’s mother read him the verse:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he restores my soul.

He guides me in paths of righteousness

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

Bump Middleton knew his injuries would kill him; doctors told him they could not stop the bleeding from the wound near his heart. He asked his mother to pray with him. And then he asked her to bring him home. 

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Days after Bump’s death, he finally made good on the promise he made to his mother. He arrived home, clean-shaven and dressed in a dark suit, and lay in a casket in the Middleton family room for several days before his funeral.

The tradition of at-home wakes was long gone; funeral homes preferred to host visitations at specific hours. But this time, holding Bump’s wake at his mother’s home was something that had to be done.

“That basically gave us the peace,” Alonzo says. “It took a while for you to find the tears and just, really, believe he was gone.”

Thirty years after Bump was buried at the Cedar Grove cemetery on Orangeburg’s south side, Alonzo Middleton brought home with him a son, his second, in January 1988. Alonzo had named his first son after himself. His wife, Glenda, was charged with naming the younger boy. She chose “Zachary.”

But there was something that felt unfinished. Alonzo, whose connection with Delano was snapped by gunfire, had long wanted to name one of his sons after his uncle.

“It’s an honor thing,” Alonzo says. “He never got a chance to do that for his children. He never had a chance to have any children. Zachary Delano Middleton sounded good.”

As Zachary grew, he was introduced to sports and history. Tee ball came first, but the gruesome details of his ancestry followed closely.

Alonzo took his sons to memorial ceremonies at the SC State campus. They heard about their great-uncle’s death in church. They read about the Orangeburg Massacre — and that nine state troopers were arrested for excessive force against protesters, although all were acquitted — in history books. They received reminders of the sacrifices born from the Civil Rights Movement when they walked through the SC State campus, which has a gymnasium called the Smith, Hammond, Middleton Memorial Center. They reaped the rewards when they bowled at the old All Star Bowling Lane (now called All-Star Triangle Bowl), which began permitting blacks soon after the Orangeburg Massacre.

Alonzo Middleton says Zachary might be too young to grasp the meaning of his great-uncle’s sacrifice, that he might be unaware of the burden his name carries.

Zachary’s strolls through campus come without threats. His visits to shops and restaurants and bowling alleys will not end prematurely because an owner or manager prefers to serve whites only. He never will be required to protest for four days to receive equal treatment or service, to face the threat of death, to stare it down and refuse to blink.

It is a burden even Alonzo has trouble digesting.

“I didn’t know that my uncle knew he was being a martyr that day, that night,” Alonzo says. “But it did a lot for a lot for students. It did a lot for this community. I’ve always been proud of Bump.” 

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Now is the time for Zachary Middleton to make his family proud. Now is the time to make himself proud.

As much as his name and face represent a bygone generation, he realizes his successes and failures are his own. His departure from Navy created an uphill battle that will test his endurance and fortitude. His rewards will be scarce. Challenges, however, will be abundant.

With his parents’ help, Zachary, who has worked part-time at his father’s insurance office since leaving Navy in February, must pay his own way for college. He must complete 60 credit hours, about two semesters of work, before SC State football coach Buddy Pough will consider awarding Zachary a scholarship.

In the meantime, he is a walk-on football player. He will not play this fall because he must spend the time to “get his grades right,” Zachary says. He must perform conditioning drills and work outs on his own so that Pough cannot question Zachary’s commitment. The one-sided deal is unfamiliar for the 19-year-old. But it is a test Zachary says he is determined to pass.

“The walk-on experience is different. You have to work hard even though the odds are stacked against you,” he says. “It’s an everyday process. You have to use it for motivation. I’m working a little bit harder than the average Joe. You really find out how much you love something when you don’t have it. I really, really love playing football. It’s in my blood.”

Zachary says he realizes how difficult his assignment will be during the next year. It would be easy, of course, to take the easy route and settle into life in Orangeburg and a ready-made career at Alonzo’s insurance office. For now, Zachary says those are not options.

It would go against family tradition. And it would go against a promise he made to himself when he decided a homecoming was the best thing for him.

Zachary will have plenty of eyes watching him during the next months; many will question his stamina and desire. He will have no shortage of reminders — including one he notices each time he signs his full name.

“You wake up every day reminded of that fact. It’s a pretty big deal,” Zachary says of being named after Delano “Bump” Middleton.

“You know his struggle, how hard he worked. It’s hard to even imagine. When you look at what they didn’t have, it helps you keep going. I know it’s a very large part of me. It’s a torch we feel needs to carry on. I’m just carrying the torch. This would have been an opportunity he would have loved to have.”

Retrieved from The State newspaper. Reach Kent Babb at (803) 771-8357.