By Katie Zeck
“The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in my yard in October of 1965,” said Eugene Marsh in reference to his first year of high school in the rural textile community of Lancaster, S.C.
“I was the first-ever African-American student entering an all-white high school. It was challenging because segregation was very rich and embedded in South Carolina, but I chose to integrate the high school in 1965 because I believed, and my foster mother believed, that I deserved a quality education.”
Marsh is a senior liberal studies major with a minor in history at Rider. He is the current owner of Construction Project Management Services, Inc., a regionally recognized construction firm; chairman of the United Way of Mercer County, and member Rider University’s Veterans Association.
Forty years ago, Marsh was a homeless Vietnam War veteran with no relatives and no job.
“When I came back from Vietnam in 1970, I came back poor and uneducated,” he said. “I was homeless for three years in South Carolina and fought to survive completely on my own. I went through a very difficult channel trying to define who I was and what I would become.”
This was not the first time Marsh faced an extremely difficult situation. Growing up in a poverty-stricken environment during the Jim Crow era, he experienced racism firsthand.
“Drinking from colored water fountains, not eating at white lunch counters, not using public bathrooms or trying on clothes in department stores, that was the norm for me,” he said.
Marsh described an incident in Lancaster where a black boy hopped the fence from the all-black swimming pool to the all-white swimming pool. Once the boy was caught, the pool was emptied and the water was sanitized.
However, these experiences helped him to appreciate something that he believes people take for granted.
“I developed an understanding of the importance of education and the role education plays in a person’s overall and professional development.”
This ideology was what pushed Marsh to integrate the Lancaster school system.
“They did not want integration to take place,” he said. “After the KKK burned the cross, I remained out of school for about three weeks because of the terror it invoked. No one was ever brought to justice for the cross burning. I returned to school, but I returned under a heavy cloud. The condition was no better, it was worse, even to the point where my books were stolen, the N word written in my notebooks and I was spit upon.”
Marsh graduated from high school in 1967 and immediately entered the armed forces.
“The reason I went into the military after high school was because I wanted to escape poverty,” he said. “I could not find a job, so I chose to go into the military to survive.”
Following two tours in Vietnam, Marsh received a Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart. His three years of homelessness came to an end when local ministers encouraged Marsh to seek assistance from the Veterans Association. He began his undergraduate work while on the GI Bill at the University of South Carolina, and later moved to New Jersey for a job.
“I was recruited to come to New Jersey to build an incinerator in Newark; it was a $400 million construction project,” he said.
Marsh went on to become a project manager for various firms before starting his own company in 1998. Currently, he hopes to eventually teach in an urban school system and become a role model for young African-American students, showing them the importance of history and education. Marsh said he feels proud of all he has accomplished and excited for what is ahead.
“The future is so beautiful,” he said. “You can imagine and you can dream, and I dreamt of the day that I would graduate from college. I’m the first member of my family to go to college and here I am today with all the things I have accomplished. I feel like this was all meant to be.”