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Editorial: College of Charleston marks its 250th year

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College anniversary

Several gather around the College of Charleston's brand new historic marker on George Street just minutes after it was unveiled Thursday. The college is marking its 250th anniversary. Robert Behre/Staff

Some might consider the College of Charleston’s 250th anniversary celebration a bit of a stretch, and by some historical measures, it is. But this year also seems as opportune time as any to reflect on the college’s deep and complex history, particularly as it continues to evolve into an institution that’s ever more important to the city, state and beyond.

In fact, this year marks the 250th anniversary of the idea of the college. In 1770, Lt. Gov. William Bull floated the concept of a new college to the South Carolina colony’s General Assembly.

The college itself wasn’t chartered until 15 years later, in 1785, after the Revolutionary War. And its first students didn’t arrive until 1790. And it didn’t become the nation’s first municipal college until 1837. (It’s no longer a municipal college but a state institution.)

Many of these details are woven into a new historical marker unveiled Thursday afternoon, as hundreds of college students, officials and others crowded George Street to watch.

Regardless of whether the year 1770 is in fact the college’s most significant milestone, there’s still cause to celebrate as new college President Andrew Hsu settles into his new job and tries to grow the school’s academic reputation and its internationally significant research.

The timing also comes as the College of Charleston, like many other colleges and universities, begins to grapple with more uncomfortable aspects of its history, such as its past reliance on enslaved workers and its later discriminatory admissions. The college didn’t admit women until 1918 or African Americans until 1967 — dates that also appear on the new marker.

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While the 250th party began Thursday, the best is yet to come, including Saturday’s “History Makers and Trailblazers” event that will look at the college’s integration and an upcoming Discovering Our Past project with 12 online historical essays linked to sites on campus.

Reporter Jenna Schiferl notes how the college won’t be trying to whitewash its more painful chapters, such as its decision to go private in 1949 to avoid racial integration. “Minority populations have played a significant role throughout the history of the college, and we want to share that complete story in many different ways,” President Hsu told Ms. Schiferl.

But the emphasis should be on the future, too, where the college faces a challenge of diversifying its student body. Currently, African Americans make up only about 8% of the college’s students in a state that’s 27% black. Fortunately, there is recognition the college can and should do better.

The popularity and success of the college has grown alongside that of its namesake city, drawing a more talented and knowledgeable pool of academics than ever before. Its urban campus — fashioned from many of Charleston’s historic streets and homes — is considered one of the nation’s best.

Recognizing the college’s past, as Dr. Hsu said, “is only one step in a much longer journey.”

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