This weekend marked a revival of sorts on the Bob Jones University campus in Greenville, South Carolina – but not the religious sort. It was the first time in more than a decade that a presidential candidate had made a major public appearance on the conservative Christian college campus.
Bob Jones used to be a popular site for Republican campaign stops, but it fell out of favor after controversy erupted over the school's segregationist past. The university lifted its ban on interracial dating in 2000.
The only major black candidate on either side of the 2016 presidential race, Dr. Ben Carson, attended a town hall forum on Friday hosted by S.C. Republican Sen. Tim Scott, who is also African-American.
When a reporter questioned him about the university's racial past, Carson said his message is the same regardless of the audience or the venue.
"Because the issues that involve us as a nation right now, as far as I'm concerned, they're not Democrat or Republican issues. They're not one ideology or another. They go to the essential survival and prosperity of our nation, and those are the things that I feel are important," Carson said.
Asked if his appearance at Bob Jones could hurt him with African-American voters, the retired neurosurgeon alluded to his status as a newcomer to politics.
"I'm not a politician, so I don't go around with my finger in the air saying, 'Let's see, can I do that?'" Carson said. "So if it hurts me, it hurts me. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I don't think it will."
At the town hall, Carson talked about poverty among African-Americans and suggested that too many black children are born to unmarried parents. He said the private sector should do more to help provide child care for low-income single mothers who want to advance their education and careers.
Afterward, Courtney Montgomery, a substitute teacher at the K-12 school Bob Jones Academy, said she admires Carson's personal story of overcoming a childhood of poverty in Detroit.
Montgomery, who is African-American, said she thinks Carson is speaking to "a reality in our community." But she said talking about it requires a "nuanced approach."
"You don't want to say ... we're this monolithic group and everybody's in poverty and everybody's on welfare in the black community, because that's not the case," Montgomery said. "I come from a middle class family. Everybody has jobs; everybody works. We're not all, you know, in the same place. You have to be careful."
Race was also an issue during a rally for religious liberty on Saturday hosted by another top-tier Republican candidate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Among the speakers was Bishop E.W. Jackson, an African-American pastor from Chesapeake, Virginia, who has been a vocal critic of President Obama.
"I stand before you not as an African American; I am an American," Jackson said, to thunderous applause. "We have got to lay aside our denominational divisions; we have got to lay aside our racial divisions and we've got to pursue together the vision of, 'One Nation, Under God.'"
In a nearly hour-long speech, Cruz referenced civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Have you noticed that liberals seem to forget that Martin Luther King was a pastor?" Cruz asked. "That somehow gets erased in the tellings from the chi-chi, leftist college professors with their posters of Che Guevara in their office."
Cruz pointed out that King began his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" with the words, "My Dear Fellow Clergymen," and suggested that religious people today should be willing to be jailed for their beliefs.
"I'm pretty sure in the language of the left, saying 'fellow clergymen' is considered a micro-aggression," Cruz said.
Students who came to the event seemed pleased to have candidates on campus after a 15-year hiatus.
Trevor West, a sophomore criminal justice major from Virginia, said he's glad to have a chance to hear the candidates speak. West, who is white, said he believes the university has moved on from its racial transgressions.
"Was Bob Jones right in any of that? No. But they have changed, and I believe it's for the better, and I believe that's why you're starting to see candidates come back here."
There were few students of color at either event. But several said they are pleased to see the university moving forward.
Hector Estrada is a Latino from Arizona. He's in his first year studying biblical counseling at Bob Jones. Of the school's racial history, Estrada says, "It was a problem back then, but we've definitely learned from it, and we've grown from it definitely."
Estrada's friend Megan Galeski, who is white, calls having presidential hopefuls on campus a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." Galeski, a freshman criminal justice major from New Jersey, says she's glad to see interracial couples on campus, fifteen years after that ban on interracial dating was dropped.
"Which is good because it's not just like, 'Oh, you have to date your race.' Which gives everyone an opportunity to find a spouse. And it's also setting up for a good Christian marriage, a good Christian foundation. It doesn't matter what background you have, a Christian foundation in a relationship is always a good thing," Galeski said.
An African-American student in attendance, Gomer Joseph, who is a freshman business major from Pennsylvania, said he's never had a problem with the racial climate on campus.
"It's not really a big deal. We overcame it, just something in the past; [we] just want to go step forward to the future," Joseph said.