The Civil War may have ended more than 150 years ago, but we are still trying to atone for our heritage of slavery, and rightly so as there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. One of the newer fronts on this road to reconciliation is collegiate, and it leads right here to the College of Charleston, which has just joined the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium. Founded in 2014 by the University of Virginia, the consortium is a multi-institution collaboration of nearly 40 universities, including The Citadel, Clemson, University of South Carolina and Furman.
“The College is committed to being a more welcoming, inclusive and diverse institution, and that means we have to learn about our past so we can build a better future,” says College of Charleston President Glenn F. McConnell ’69. “It was important that the College join the Universities Studying Slavery consortium so we can know more about our past and be more open and honest about the early days and years of our university’s existence. It is only through telling our complete story that we can reconcile our past with our bright future and be a place where anyone and everyone can call the College of Charleston home.”
Many of these schools have active research agendas addressing their relationships to slavery and their reliance on enslaved laborers to build and maintain their campuses, as well as the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, and reconsidering Confederate memorials. Others, like CofC, are just beginning the process of combing through the documentary record for the names of the enslaved laborers who worked on buildings.
“Virtually every historic building on campus would have been built by enslaved laborers and this needs to be recognized,” says R. Grant Gilmore III, associate professor and Addlestone Chair in Historic Preservation. “With our joining USS, this is one of many steps we are taking towards reconciling this history and the responsibilities we have for the region with our status as Charleston’s university. Colleagues across campus are diving deeply into the history of enslaved labor on campus and on buildings that the College now owns.”
Kameelah L. Martin, director of African American Studies, thinks the effort is overdue for the College.
“I see it as an opportunity to truly change the institutional culture moving into the future,” she says. “We’ve had several unfortunate incidents and media attention in the past year that suggests that the racial climate here on campus is nearing the boiling point. You cannot exist in Charleston – or at the College – without the legacies of slavery haunting your every turn. Continuing to turn a blind eye to that history, to the discomfort one might feel while discussing it does a huge disservice to our mission.”
Since our seal reads, “Wisdom Itself is Liberty,” Martin feels we are obligated as an institution of higher education to teach and engage with our students and community about the ugly truths surrounding the city, the campus and the global market of enslaved Africans.
“More than just recovering how the College benefitted from the trade in human flesh, joining the Universities Studying Slavery consortium is a commitment to advocacy as much as it is to a liberal arts education,” she says. “People of African descent were enslaved here and we seek not only truth, but also reconciliation about that history. The legacy of enslavement did not end in 1865. As the Race and Social Justice Initiative’s Racial Disparities Report indicates, people of African descent in Charleston County, as one example, are still feeling the burden of social, economic, educational and political inequities that are a direct result of institutionalized slavery and, in its aftermath, racism.
Martin adds, “I am excited to be part of an institution that is finally ready to confront its ugly past, but even more excited that joining the consortium offers the College of Charleston the opportunity to be a leader in social justice advocacy grounded in historical facts. We are ready to finally get comfortable with the discomfort of an imperfect past.”
The USS holds semi-annual meetings (six to date) to share research and discuss strategies. Tougaloo College in Mississippi will host the next gathering in late October 2018.
“Membership in this consortium further deepens our commitment to understanding the critical role played by slavery in Charleston and at the College of Charleston,” says Provost Brian McGee. “We will continue to explore the links between past and present as we work to create a better, kinder and more honest community.”