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College of Charleston coming to terms with its role in slavery. A documentary is one step.


The College of Charleston is celebrating its 250th anniversary. It's also examining its role in slavery. Provided/Mike Ledford/College of Charleston 

Four enslaved laborers — Tom, Mudrey, Cuffy and Peggy — almost certainly helped build the College of Charleston’s majestic Randolph Hall, which sits at the heart of the campus.

We know this because research shows that a barrel-maker and ice house manufacturer bought them from builder William Bell in 1829 just before Randolph Hall (at the time called College Hall) was completed. Bell likely had little use for them at that stage of the project, and their carpentry skills were deemed valuable to the barrel and ice house makers.


Barry Stiefel teaches in the College of Charleston's Historic Preservation & Community Planning Program. He is researching the contributions made to the campus by enslaved Africans. Provided/College of Charleston

Back then, the college campus was limited to the Cistern Yard and surrounding structures. Other enslaved people participated in the construction of the school, as scholar Barry Stiefel is now discovering. At least one college president, Jasper Adams, was a slave owner. Records show he purchased a woman named Nancy and her daughter Sara Ann in 1829.

Now, college administrators, faculty and staff are engaged in an effort to reveal more of this history and acknowledge the contributions of enslaved Africans. A new documentary film is a first step that has led to conversations about other ways to confront, and to come to terms with, a difficult past.

School officials and faculty are hoping to pay long-overdue tribute to the exploited men and women who were integral in the development of the school and the city, to open a dialogue about the college’s role in upholding the oppressive regime of slavery and, ultimately, to inspire more people of color to take advantage of what the school has to offer.

The history isn’t always pretty.


The Cistern Yard is the heart of the College of Charleston, and the oldest part of campus. Its buildings, including Randolph Hall, were constructed with the help of enslaved workers. Provided/Mike Ledford/College of Charleston

The College of Charleston boasts one of the most beautiful campuses in the United States, with its single houses and other distinctive buildings, its moss-draped oaks and its romantic allure.

But the heart of the campus, the oldest portion, was established in part on the backs of the enslaved, and during the long period of institutionalized discrimination, black people were excluded from the school. In 1949, the college, a municipal school with an enrollment of about 500 mostly local students, went private to avoid desegregation.

Its first black students enrolled in 1967, and the college became a state school in 1970.

Soon after, under the leadership of President Ted Stern, the campus was enlarged significantly and enrollment increased tenfold. The student population doubled, to around 10,000, during the 1980s and 1990s.

But the demographics of the student body (and faculty and staff, too, for that matter) have never reflected the makeup of the population at large, and the college has struggled in recent years to attract students of color and to diversify its payroll.


Renard Harris is chief diversity officer at the College of Charleston. Provided/College of Charleston 

It’s a challenge. And, as other universities are discovering, it requires an honest assessment of both past and future, according to Renard Harris, chief of diversity at the College of Charleston.

“A lot of this is about attribution,” he said. “It’s telling a fuller story.”

Perpetuating false or incomplete narratives about the school sows distrust and requires regular correction, and this can dissuade students and faculty from coming.

“We have to rebuild from zero every time,” Harris said. “Each generation shouldn’t have to rebuild every time.”

The goal must be to create a safe and hospitable campus environment for minority students, and especially for African Americans, he said.

“We have to put grandmother at ease,” Harris said. “(We have to assure her that) we’re going to take care of her grandson or granddaughter, and I don’t think she feels that way yet, and that’s unfair.”


Michael Owens (right) works on the documentary film "If These Walls Could Talk." Here the filmmakers interview professor emeritus Bernard Powers, who runs the recently established Center for the Study of Slavery. Provided/College of Charleston

Ideas abound

The documentary “If These Walls Could Talk” is an initiative of the Office of Institutional Diversity spearheaded by professors Charissa Owens and Michael Owens, who are married.


Charissa Owens is director of diversity education at the College of Charleston and is spearheading the production of "If These Walls Could Talk." Provided/Mike Ledford/College of Charleston

Charissa Owens is director of diversity education and project leader; Michael is a member of the English Department faculty who taught a course in African American oral history and who wrote and directed the film. They have been coordinating their efforts with Bernard Powers, professor emeritus of history and director of the college’s newly established Center for the Study of Slavery.

The 45-minute documentary is the end result of an effort that began with some basic brainstorming about how to define “diversity” and how to train college faculty and staff to understand its value. That early impulse to create a diversity framework led to an idea for creating a short video. But then a bigger idea emerged. This was the college’s 250th anniversary year; why not make a longer film that, potentially, could be aired on television?

Bernard Powers

Bernard Powers. Provided/Heather D. Moran/College of Charleston

The movie only scratches the surface, Michael Owens said. It’s a survey of the black experience at the college, and the filmmakers hope to use some of the footage to make a recruitment video that the admissions office can use.

The project likely is just the beginning of a larger effort, Powers said.

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“It will be important for us to look at the overarching themes,” he said, calling attention to the historical rise of the black community in the vicinity of the college, the experiences of free blacks in Charleston, the impacts of emancipation, the history of the Avery Research Center and the achievements of recent graduates. “The College of Charleston is looking at its history very deeply, and some aspects we are not proud of, but we’re dealing with them. Others show progress.”

The effort could include the creation of a new course on the history of the college and how that history reveals broader trends, Powers said. Campus tours also could be adjusted to take into account the school’s role in both exploiting and educating blacks.

cofc_diversity_Brick in Barry's office.jpg

This brick in Barry Stiefel's office was made by an enslaved person whose handprint is visible. School officials have discussed the possibility of constructing a "heritage trail" through campus that pays tribute to the contributions of enslaved laborers. Provided/College of Charleston 

The brainstorming has led to other ideas, such as creating new scholarships for students of color; improving retention and bolstering campus social services; renovating the multicultural center and turning it into a dynamic gathering place; adding markers and memorials to honor important people and historic events; and creating a “heritage trail” using old bricks made by enslaved workers.

“The approach is meant to be inviting,” said Charissa Owens. “We’re really trying to build bridges.”

Not just an elective

About 30 percent of the state’s population is African American, according to census figures. Latinos make up about 9 percent of South Carolina’s 5 million residents. But at the College of Charleston, blacks comprise less than 9 percent of the total student population of 9,900, and Latinos slightly more than 6 percent, according to 2018 data compiled by the school’s Office of Institutional Research.

Among employees, the college has a higher proportion of African Americans — just under 15 percent of a total of 2,000 — while Latinos make up less than 4 percent.

Harlan Greene, head of Special Collections and a member of the 250th anniversary history committee, noted that it’s reasonable to focus on the proportion of whites and blacks since the history of the College of Charleston includes the oppression and displacement of African Americans, but it’s important to remember that “diversity” encompasses gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and more.

“Color is our historic sin, and there’s no making up for it, but diversity really is more than that,” Greene said, noting that 1 in 5 students likely is gay, and about 10 percent are Jewish.

Other college officials agree and have coined a bureaucratic term to refer to non-whites: “underrepresented minorities,” or URM for short.

Those minorities already have access to college resources, including the SPECTRA summer program, which acclimates incoming freshmen to the college, and the Bridge program, which provides incoming students with a transitional preparatory semester at Trident Technical College.

Jay Scott, an 18-year-old incoming African American freshman from Columbia who is joining the Honors College, said he hopes black history will become a more integral part of the campus experience, but he appreciates recent efforts to acknowledge it and to diversify the school population.

“Nothing can be completely changed overnight,” he said. “I think it’s a great start as long as they don’t drop the ball. I think it’s going to go very well. Given Charleston’s racially charged history, it’s great that this is even happening in 2019.”

Scott was among more than 80 who participated in the SPECTRA program this summer. Another was Allyana Franks, an 18-year-old African American from Florence who plans to become a pharmaceutical scientist.

“I feel like I was in good hands,” she said.

Franks said she appreciates the college’s efforts to recognize its full history but that more needs to be done to recruit people of color.

“Go to minority-populated areas, visit predominantly minority schools,” she suggested. Meanwhile, the state should make African American history part of the required curriculum, not merely an elective.

Need to catch up

The College of Charleston has extended its reach into high schools with its Junior Project and Senior Project, weeklong college prep programs for high school juniors and seniors who are minorities or first-generation citizens.


President Andrew Hsu. Provided/Mike Ledford/College of Charleston

President Andrew Hsu, who began his tenure at the college this year, is a member of the board of the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, which seeks to improve education outcomes.

Hsu insisted that diversity is important to the overall success of the college, and of democracy itself. He said he is focused on making improvements in three main areas: recruitment of students, faculty and staff; on-campus support to ensure success; and (this is the most difficult, he said) changing campus culture.

But more than that is needed, he went on.

“We need to partner with K-12 and the community to help them understand what does ‘college-ready’ mean. ... We need to be more innovative in our thinking.”

He said the college could do more to create and strengthen educational and professional pipelines, helping minority students find their way to higher education, providing more financial aid, then helping them find a career path and a job.

The school is set to embark on a nine-month strategic planning initiative, and diversity will be a major part of that plan, Hsu said. It’s not enough to celebrate the college’s 250th anniversary, he said. Other schools, such as Georgetown and Brown and Harvard and William & Mary and Princeton, are striving to come to terms with their role in slavery and make amends; the College of Charleston should do the same.

“We need to catch up,” Hsu said. “As we celebrate, we have to reflect on our history, and we have to examine the whole history.”

Contact Adam Parker at or 843-937-5902.

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