The unveiling of a new solar shade pavilion at the College of Charleston on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, served as a platform to honor the Indigenous and enslaved people who labored and lived on and near the site throughout history. The event, titled “Uncovering History/Making History,” recognized both the history of the site where artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries, including a slave tag from 1853, were found, as well as the forward momentum of solar energy and sustainability at the College.
“In so many different ways, the solar pavilion embodies the spirit of our strategic plan, which is titled Tradition and Transformation,” said CofC President Andrew T. Hsu. “It is connected to our past, to our present and to our future. We stand upon ground once trod by Indigenous tribes, enslaved and enslaver, and now we are here in order to reconcile with our past in order to transform our present and future.”
Hsu added, “Out of a dark chapter in Charleston’s story, I am proud to say that we now bring light, light and power that are sustainable – light and power that support our students, faculty, staff and visitors.”
The ceremony opened with a land and labor acknowledgement featuring CofC student and Edisto/Natchez-Kusso Tribe member Sarah Creel and Winne Mraz and Cathy Nelson, elders of the Edisto/Natchez-Kusso Tribe, who recognized the Indigenous people who first occupied land near the site. CofC alumna Rev. Leondra Stoney ’02, pastor of Greater Howard Chapel AME Church, also gave remarks, honoring the enslaved people who labored at the location.
Ronald McKelvey, CofC Maintenance Shop supervisor and poet, read his poem, “Through the Eyes of a Needle,” which he wrote to commemorate the history and significance of the site. The poem read in part:
Let our untold past be looked upon and told through the eyes of a needle…
Opening doors and the hearts of others around us into a new horizon…
Our Families, Past, Present, and Future Impact…
Will change our future’s outlook upon our history…
So… You must stand firm to thread the eye of this needle…
Also as part of the event, members of the CofC Concert Choir and Gospel Choir sang the second verse from “Lift Every Voice.”
John Morris, vice president of the College’s Division of Facilities Management, said the pavilion’s 16 solar panels will produce about 250 kilowatt hours of energy per year, enough to completely power the fans, charging stations and electrical outlets at the pavilion as well as provide about 15% of the energy needs for the College’s Spanish-language house Casa Hispana, located nearby on Bull Street.
“This project is important for us in that it ties directly to our sustainability action plan, contributing to a carbon-neutral campus,” said Morris.
The pavilion, located behind 65 Coming St. near the Pi Kappa Phi Bell Tower, was funded in part by a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy through the S.C. Energy Office as well as $5,000 from the College’s Center for Sustainable Development.
Since the pavilion was partially funded with a federal grant, the College was required to conduct an archeological excavation of the site prior to construction. CofC archaeology students and faculty conducted the excavation last spring, where they discovered the slave tag as well as a hearth, animal bones and pottery, among other historical artifacts. More information about the history of the site and the people who occupied it is available at the Discovering Our Past website, which is dedicated to the history of the College of Charleston.
In conjunction with the event, the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and the College of Charleston Libraries Special Collections created an exhibit of slave tags titled, Artifacts of Oppression. The exhibit, which will be on display on the third floor of Addlestone Library outside of Special Collections from Oct. 15–Nov. 22, 2021, includes slave tags for a servant, a porter and a mechanic. Other items in the exhibit include a free tag worn by a free person of color, plus a sculpture by artist Shirley McWhorter-Moss titled, “A Way Out.” All of the items in the exhibit are from the Avery Research Center’s collections.
In use from the 18th century to 1865, a slave tag is a small, metal object that served as a permit showing slaveholders had registered an enslaved person with the city to work for someone else.
Grant Gilmore, associate professor and Addlestone Chair in Historic Preservation, along with Scott Harris, associate professor of geology and director of the College’s Archaeology Program; Jim Newhard, professor of Classics and director of the College’s Center for Historical Landscapes; and Jim Ward, senior instructor of historic preservation and community planning, led 36 students in excavating the site.
Gilmore, during the event on Oct. 15, reflected on the significant history of the site and how its story can help shape a better future.
“This is a kitchen, this is a dwelling, this is a gathering space,” he said. “Black folks lived here, white folks lived here, enslaved people lived here, free people of color lived here, laborers lived here and owners of multinational companies had their offices in this building.”
Grant noted that the objects found at the site not only shed light on the people who worked and lived there, but they open a dialogue for a new way forward.
“These objects inform us about that past, but they direct us toward a different future,” he said. “The stories that these things tell us, the way we interpret them in the present, what we can do to modify our behavior today so that we have a different future, is so very important – and that’s what the College is about.”