In 2001, students at Yale University uncomfortable with the school’s expressions of pride in its abolitionist past decided to look into the matter only to discover a complicated history.
The effort received slight attention at the time, but it signaled a shift. Soon, other academic institutions were scrutinizing their pasts.
A report published by the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice made clear that the university benefited a lot: It was founded thanks to support provided by slave traders, many of whom were located in the Charleston area.
“Henry Laurens, who would later succeed John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress, ran the largest slave trading house in North America,” the report noted. “In the 1750s alone, his Charleston firm oversaw the sale of more than 8,000 enslaved Africans. He donated £50 to the endowment campaign.”
The Brown University report took careful inventory of its history and made a number of recommendations for addressing long-neglected injustice.
Other institutions followed Brown’s lead, including Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown, William & Mary, Rutgers and the University of Virginia, which in 2014 established the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.
That commission, in turn, started the organization Universities Studying Slavery “that would effectively institutionalize and perpetuate ... important cross-institutional learning.”
Many schools have since joined that effort, including The Citadel in November 2017 and the College of Charleston in April 2018.
Now, the College of Charleston has announced it will go even further in confronting its past and examining the impacts of history by establishing the Center for the Study of Slavery. Bernard Powers will serve as the center’s first director, a part-time position he expects to hold during the start-up phase.
Powers taught African-American history at the college from 1992 to 2018 and now is a board member of the International African American Museum. He is the author of “Black Charlestonians: A Social History 1822-1885” and co-author of “We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel.”
Powers said he and his colleague Julia Eichelberger, director of Southern Studies and professor of Southern Literature, were lamenting early this year that the college was not yet part of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium and approached Provost Brian McGee about the opportunity. McGee offered enthusiastic support.
“Then we talked about what we might do as part of the consortium,” Power said. “The center, we hope, not only will be an intellectual engine in its own right, but a clearinghouse bringing individuals and organizations together.”
The first thing to do, he said, is survey the college’s staff, take an inventory of initiatives and start connecting the dots.
“In the academic community, people proceed as if they were independent free agents,” he said. But the synergies between departments can be surprisingly strong. “Who would automatically think someone in the German Department would have an interest in African-American history?” Well, there is someone it turns out — Nancy Nenno — who studies the Black-Austrian and Black-German experience.
Next will be to leverage the “power of place,” to describe what makes this region so important and unique, Powers said. The center ultimately could become a force that links disparate organizations that all examine, in various ways, the black experience, from historic sites to museums to institutions of higher learning. And it can bolster the college’s interdisciplinary offerings, perhaps eventually offering advanced degrees in African-American studies.
“I take the long view,” Powers said. “I came here in the 1970s, when enslaved people were called servants and mammy dolls were sold on the Market and the Civil War was said to have started because of tariffs.”
Michael Boulware Moore, president and CEO of the International African American Museum, said he was looking forward to future collaboration.
“The College of Charleston is in a unique position to spearhead something like this,” Moore said. “Dr. Powers is probably the perfect person to do this. He literally wrote the book on black Charleston.”
Moore pointed out that the college’s Avery Institute, along with a variety of nonprofits, community organizations and historic sites, have been doing good work in this field for years.
“I think there’s a critical mass that is quickly coming together,” he said, adding that Charleston, the primary North American entry point for enslaved Africans, is the right place to pursue a project of this kind.
Simon Lewis, director of the college’s Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program (CLAW) and a professor of African literature, said he expects the center to galvanize scholarly activity as well as community outreach.
“I hope that CLAW will be a major contributor to the center and we can put our expertise and our connections to good use,” Lewis said, adding that the basic concept of creating a central clearing house for African-American history emerged on campus long ago. “I don’t know what comes first, where the chicken is and where the egg is in all this, but it’s a measure of how much more open people are (about) acknowledging a truth that’s been in plain sight for a very long time.”
Lewis called the establishment of the center a “magic moment,” albeit one that is overdue.
“Memory’s on the move in Charleston, it just moves very slowly, in a slightly peristaltic motion,” he said.