One hundred years ago, in December 1916, our nation was on the verge of becoming involved in what was then considered “the war to end all wars.” After the U.S. entered World War I in late spring of 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which still requires men in this country to register for a possible draft. On June 5 of that year, a young man from Anderson became one of the 24 million men who registered during the war. Months later, Charles Ezra Daniel, more commonly known as Charlie, left The Citadel, where he had been enrolled on scholarship since 1916, and joined the U.S. Army.
Daniel was placed with Company B of the 51st Infantry of the 6th Division, which sailed for France from New York in July 1918. 2nd Lt. Daniel’s division was assigned to the Vosges sector, a mountainous area in eastern France near the border with Germany where French and German troops had been stalemated. They suffered near-daily German artillery attacks.
The 6th developed a reputation as the best hikers in the American Expeditionary Forces, because they often engaged in marches to confuse and distract the enemy. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the 6th Division reached their assigned point on schedule on Nov. 12, 1918 — one day after the armistice, earning an ironic nickname that still stands: “The Sightseeing 6th.”
The 6th Division sailed for the U.S in summer of 1919, whereupon Daniel returned to Anderson and took a position working with Townshend Lumber, using his pay to help his younger brother Hugh graduate from The Citadel, the institution he had to leave. In 1924, he married Homozel “Mickey” Mickel.
In 1934-5, Daniel founded a construction company based in Anderson that within three years was generating more than $1 million per year in revenue. The company benefited significantly from New Deal opportunities during the Great Depression, and the construction boom generated by World War II; Daniel Construction, which moved to Greenville in 1941, won the government contract to build the Greenville Army Air Base (now known as Donaldson Air Field at the S.C. Technology and Aviation Center). In 1942, his company constructed the base in 90 days; his reputation for efficiency ultimately garnered more than 70 defense-related government contracts during the war. In the years after the war, he and his wife established The Daniel Foundation as a means of giving to local hospitals, colleges and universities and churches.
In the mid-1950s, Daniel was appointed to fill one of the state’s seats in the U.S. Senate. He served for four months in 1954, resigning in December of that year. In this and other positions, he was particularly effective in recruiting companies and encouraging industrial development and the growth of private business in the state. In the late 1950s, he helped oversee the construction of a new Furman campus north of downtown Greenville, and he and his wife built White Oaks, a majestic home near the Furman campus modeled on the Governor’s Palace in colonial Williamsburg, Va. Other colleges and universities, such as Clemson, Converse and The Citadel, and more importantly the students who attend them, have also been recipients of Daniel philanthropy. Many of the structures he built and the scholarships and professorships they endowed bear his and his wife’s names.
During that time, the American South was wrought with strife over social changes prompted by the civil rights movement. Many influential white men stood forcefully against change; few publicly endorsed acquiescence, and those who did typically did so only when faced with unacceptable alternatives.
At the Hampton Watermelon Festival in July 1961, however, Daniel offered remarks that are now known among historians as the “Watermelon Speech.” Given years before passage of the Civil Rights Act, Daniel confronted desegregation head on, and in keeping with his strong commitment to South Carolina’s economic development, deemed that the issue “cannot continue to be hidden behind the door.” University of South Carolina historian Marcia Synnott has written that Daniel argued that “the state would benefit economically by fulfilling its ‘obligation to increase the productivity of our Negro citizens, to provide them with good jobs at good wages, and to continue to assure them of fair treatment.’” Historians liken his call to a stamp of approval from the Southern white establishment to accept changing race relations; historian Walter Edgar has written that his remarks were “the first public indication that men in positions of power were willing to abandon segregation.” Daniel’s forthright remarks encouraged and emboldened other white civic and business leaders to follow his practical, realistic approach of acceptance instead of opposition.
Charlie Daniel died in 1964 at 68 and is buried in the Daniel Mausoleum in Springwood Cemetery. His wife lived in White Oaks and continued their philanthropy until her death in 1992, whereupon the home was bequeathed to Furman and is used as the president’s residence.
The Christian writer Max Lucado penned the inspiring phrase, “Outlive your life.” Daniel’s legacy is evidenced by the thousands of young people whose lives are improved by the scholarships and educational opportunities provided by the Daniel-Mickel Foundation. Charlie Daniel may not have graduated from college, but he and his family have helped thousands of young people do so. Our community has also been greatly enhanced by the Daniels; to date, the Foundation has given more than $46 million in support of local organizations.
Charles Daniel was a veteran, a leader who advocated for what was right, a visionary and a generous philanthropist. In this season of giving and thanksgiving, let us be mindful of those like Charles Daniel who have done so much for our country and our community.
Dr. Courtney L. Tollison Hartness teaches history at Furman University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.