Carolina Food Co. staff returned a pair of tables to the Russell House dining hall after Black USC students took to social media when the tables were removed.
Photographs that show the long, multi-seat tables had been replaced with smaller tables with fewer seats began circulating on Twitter on Aug. 10.
The tables, located on the first floor of Russell, serve as an important congregation spot for Black students on campus, according to several responses shared by students and alumni on social media.
“It’s kind of like a staple for us, honestly,” fourth-year operations and supply chain student Justin Walker said. “It’s just like a common space for everybody to meet and have fellowship with one another. And considering we make up such a small percentage at our campus, it’s just kind of nice to be able to kind of shrink down and it be a lot of people who look like you and have similar backgrounds.”
Fourth-year electrical engineering student Miles Phifer said he started sitting at the table his freshman year. He said it gave him an opportunity to be around a diverse group of other Black students — a chance he said he didn’t get at his high school.
“I think for us, it's a great way to show that we are here, that we're on this campus and that we're not going to hide,” Phifer said. “I think just talking to some of my friends, it's very important for us to feel like we can express ourselves even though we are at a predominantly white institution.”
USC Columbia's undergraduate population is 10.2% Black, according to data from the university’s website. Nearly 30% of South Carolina’s population is Black. White students make up 76.7% of the student body, while the state population is 63.9% white.
Phifer originally shared the photos on Twitter. He said he noticed the tables had been changed while walking around campus after early move-in.
“I wasn't expecting all the response that it got,” he said.
Phifer’s original tweet received responses from current USC students and alumni, many of which shared their experiences and emphasized the importance of the tables. He said the responses from them "reinforced that it was important for me to do this.”
“It definitely felt good to feel like being supported and just kind of seeing how the whole Black USC community kind of came together,” Phifer said. “And we were like, ‘This is something that's very important to us. So we're going to speak out about it.’”
Photos posted by the Russell House Twitter account in response appeared to show the tables returned to their original setup by the morning of Aug. 11.
The tables were moved to make room for student orientation dining over the summer, according to Faren Alston, the marketing director of Carolina Food Co.
Alston said she was not aware of the student pushback until The Daily Gamecock reached out for comment.
“We saw as many as 900 students and parents during each orientation session this summer so needed to reconfigure the furniture to set up long buffet lines,” Alston said in an email.
Director of Russell House Kim McMahon said she was made aware of the large tables being removed when students began reacting on social media and reaching out to her personally over text.
McMahon tweeted from the Russell House Twitter account with photos of the returned tables and a "Welcome Back!" caption.
Carolina Food Co. is in charge of the layout of tables in dining areas, not Russell House management, according to McMahon.
Though she is not in charge of the table configuration, McMahon said she felt the need to respond because the student criticism was directed at Russell House, rather than dining services or Carolina Food Co.
She said the tables were back in their original configuration the morning after the social media backlash.
“That really kind of tells me that it wasn't anything other than an unfortunate oversight, yet one that we needed to be reminded of,” McMahon said.
McMahon said she hopes students would feel encouraged to “call the Russell House out” if needed in the future so the leadership can better adjust its services and goals to serve students.
“I'm very proud that our Black students look to the Russell House as a core part of their student experience,” McMahon said. “And the more that I can learn from that, the better that I can lead this organization and lead our staff and our students to serve all students, not just those who are mostly served, but especially those who have been underserved or differently served.”
Alston said the tables returning to their original set-up was not prompted by student criticism.
“Student pushback was not a factor to my knowledge,” she said in an email.
Several students responded positively to Russell House's tweets showing the returned tables. Walker said he was glad Russell House addressed the issue.
“I do appreciate how fast they were in responding and fixing the issue because I think that anybody that works in Russell or just comes to Russell knows what that is and what that means for us as Black students at this school,” Walker said.
Walker — who saw the Twitter discussion but did not participate in it himself — said he feels the university and administration do not normally listen to Black students’ concerns, citing his experience as part of USC’s NAACP chapter's efforts to have buildings on campus renamed.
He called the tables returning “a small win.”
The tables are especially important for Black students who come from communities and schools where they aren't used to being the minority to be able to meet other Black students at USC, according to Walker.
“It sounds real trivial, but being able to meet people that look like you at a school like this is very important because we can always look out for each other,” Walker said.
The table is a way for students to feel connected to the legacy of other students who have sat there while at USC, according to Phifer.
“I know at the end of the day, I have a space where I can vent all my frustrations and I get the diversity of thought that exists within the Black community,” Phifer said. “I don't ever feel like I have to act a certain way, because it's very inclusive and it makes me feel like I can be myself.”