The story never ends if you don’t start telling it. And, when it comes to the story of slavery and its complex legacies in and around Charleston, it has to be told thoroughly and honestly if you want a meaningful ending.
That’s why CofC’s new Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston (CSSC) is taking an in-depth and forthright look at the role of slavery in the history of the College, Charleston and the surrounding region. By engaging the community and promoting a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the story of slavery in the area, the center has its sights set on a place of racial healing and reconciliation.
“The story of slavery belongs to all of us,” says Bernard Powers, professor emeritus of history at the College and director of the CSSC. “It’s part of our history. And yet, too often, it doesn’t get told. Even when it does, it’s under the auspices of ‘African American history,’ as something that only matters to black people. But the story of slavery is the story of so many different things. It’s a hemispheric story, a global story, a provincial story. It’s not just the story of black people. It’s American history. We all share this history.”
Which makes this history that much more compelling.
“History is part of everything. Especially in Charleston: It’s in the air we breathe,” says Powers. “And at the College, it’s inescapable. It’s what we are. It makes us who we are today. We have to embrace it.”
And that means all of it.
“You can’t just ignore the slavery storyline because you don’t like it; it doesn’t just go away,” says Powers. “So, we want to take the blinders off and tell the story of slavery with transparency and in the broadest possible way.”
Through scholarly research and ambitious public programming, the CSSC examines the impact of slavery and race-related issues in and around Charleston and at the College of Charleston from the late 18th century through the civil rights era and the continued impact and legacy of slavery in the present.
“The College of Charleston is particularly well-suited for this kind of work because of its high-caliber faculty and staff members with expertise, interest and a demonstrated record of achievement in areas crucial for the center’s success,” says Powers, noting that – between the College’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and the Lowcountry Digital Library, Special Collections and the South Carolina Historical Society (housed in the Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library) – there are rich opportunities in the archival materials found right here on campus. “And that’s not even touching on all the historical materials from our historic buildings, some of which were constructed by enslaved laborers. So, the center provides a forum for faculty and staff interested in these research opportunities.”
By supporting the academic research of programs and departments across campus– including the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program, the First-Year Experience, the Sustainability Literacy Institute, African American studies, art and architectural history, Latin American and Caribbean studies and anthropology– the center furthers the College’s public history initiatives related to the study of slavery.
“On our campus alone, there are so many different initiatives going on, but they are coming from different departments, so part of this is to help all the players to communicate and optimize their efforts. It provides an opportunity to build a synergy with extant organizations and share the workload,” explains Powers, noting that the CSSC is also working closely with the Preservation Society of Charleston, the Gullah Society and Charleston’s new International African American Museum. “So you have all these entities in the community coming together. The idea is to use the College of Charleston for talking about larger themes in American history – and the center will be part of all those discussions.”
Cultivating conversations within the community and promoting curricular offerings on the study of slavery in Charleston is central to the center’s mission. Through exhibitions, public programs and workshops, the CSSC connects the public to historic images, documents and art, as well as innovative studies produced by scholars who are conceptualizing new ideas about the lives of enslaved peoples in the Charleston area.
“What we really mean to do here is educate the public about the meaning and consequences of slavery and give people a better appreciation for history and the way it relates to our personal biographies,” shares Powers, who has given talks to the Retired Teachers of Charleston County Association, the Charleston City Council and several elementary schools about the importance of telling the story of slavery early in students’ lives.
While the center has made important inroads in the community and on campus since its establishment in October 2018, its plans for the future at the College of Charleston are what really excite Powers. These plans include hosting the other four South Carolina universities in the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium for an annual conference and making campus signage a part of the International African American Museum’s self-guided heritage tours.
It also includes rewriting the College of Charleston’s history.
“Examining the history of the College and its relationship to slavery will allow new stories and important additional actors to emerge,” says Powers, noting that a film examining the College through the lens of African American history is already in the works and that there’s another proposal to create a regular course that looks at the history of the College and how race and other themes in American history still impact the campus and the community today. “These developments will result in a change in the way the history of the College of Charleston is written and presented. And that’s a very good thing that will benefit the entire College and community.”
In fact, Powers believes the center’s work has the potential for positively affecting minority recruitment.
“By embracing these issues forthrightly, the College will be better positioned to effect change across multiple areas,” he says. “The College is also saying, ‘We’d like to be honest about our past and to show how much of our history really is part of African American history.’ It shows that we are still a work in progress, but there is progress. So, in the end, it has every potential to become a success story.”
In other words, the meaningful ending to this story is up to us.
Featured image of Bernard Powers by Mike Ledford.