A Modern Atlantic Crossing: An Investigation into Afropean Identity

Image courtesy of JohnyPitts.com

Image courtesy of JohnyPitts.com

United Kingdom native and resident Johny Pitts recently conducted an investigation into his mixed heritage for BBC Radio 4. Pitts, a broadcast journalist born from the union of a southern African-American soul musician and working-class Englishwoman, confessed that his only base knowledge of his paternal ancestry was learned through school which taught him that Africans were slaves. Dissatisfied with this flawed account of African history, Pitt traces his patrilineal roots on a journey of self-discovery.

Pitts’ voyage begins with crossing the Atlantic to examine Brooklyn church records providing scant details of the life of his grandmother, Sepy. He discovers Sepy was not originally from New York but rather was born in the south and once picked cotton in Olar, South Carolina. In 1930 at the age of fourteen, Sepy participated in what would become known to history as the Great Migration and abandoned her life in a small, segregated southern town for a life of independence in the north.

Black Family Arrives in Chicago from the South, ca. 1919. Image courtesy of blackpast.org

Black Family Arrives in Chicago from the South, ca. 1919. Image courtesy of blackpast.org

“The Great Migration was the first time in the history of the country that the lowest caste of people actually acted upon the desire to be free. And could make a way and a world for themselves,” stated Pulitzer Prize recipient Isabel Wilkerson to Pitts, “to me, it [was] an act of courage and an inspiration for the world.”

Further investigative research leads Pitts to Charleston, South Carolina, the major port town where hundreds of thousands of Africans docked to begin their life of bondage. With a desire to understand his ancestors as people “more than slaves,” Pitts encounters esteemed College of Charleston professor of history Dr. Bernard Powers.

Powers describes enslaved people as “extremely talented, creative, they were survivors. They were the reason this place ultimately got on the map. While you’re here, as you look out eastward, across the Atlantic Ocean, you’ll be looking across to the African continent where your family history ultimately begins.”

Sullivan’s Island witnesses the end of his journey. Having once perceived his father’s line as a “vague, fractured, lost history,” Pitts concludes that his identity is not composed of the “genes of slaves but rather the genes of enslaved people. People who ultimately were resilient and creative in the face of injustice and provocation. Culture creators who managed to maneuver through treacherous times and spaces and still able to bear the fruit of art and music and stories that have transformed the face of the world. Influences that can even be found in Sheffield where I grew up.”

Pitts’ final thoughts instill justice into a distorted, textbook history: “I’m not descended from slaves but black men and women who, as evidenced by me standing here now, survived.”

To listen to the entire broadcast, please visit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06flmcw

Avery Celebrates 150th Anniversary

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, a research affiliation of the College of Charleston, celebrated its 150th anniversary on Saturday, October 31st.

“To understand the Avery Research Center, it is important to consider its rich history. Founded in 1865 as the Avery Normal Institute, this community hub provided education and advocacy for the growing Charleston African American community and trained blacks for professional careers and leadership roles. Although the Institute closed its doors in 1954, it graduates preserved the legacy of their alma mater by establishing the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture.

The modern rebirth of Avery began in 1985 with the establishment of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. The newly christened center came to fruition through a memorandum of understanding between the former Avery Institute and
the College, with many of the charter members graduates of the original Avery Normal Institute.

For the last twenty-five years, the Avery Research Center has collected art and archival materials that document the history, traditions, and legacies of African Americans and their influence on American society and culture, as well as their place within the American narrative (source – http://avery.cofc.edu/about/history-of-avery/).”

To commemorate Avery’s anniversary, Ann Caldwell delivered a musical performance followed by remarks from: Dr. Patricia Lessane, Executive Director of the Avery Research Center; Dr. Bernard Powers, Professor in the Department of History at the College of Charleston; the Honorable Lucille Whipper, Avery Institute Alumna, former South Carolina State Representative, and former President of the Avery Institute Board.

LessanelucillewhipperPowersFor more information on the Avery Institute, please visit the following website:  http://avery.cofc.edu/

“Sounds of the Cigar Factory” debuts in Charleston


Image courtesy of mojafestival.com


On Thursday, October 29th, the Sounds of the Cigar Factory held its first performance at the Amphitheatre on 66 Columbus Street.

 The cast of the Sounds of the Cigar Factory included Mary Arnette Edwards, Marvetta Daniels, Cece Fields, Gloria Barr Ford, Idris L. Harley, Alice DuPre Jordan, Dick Latham, Phoebe J. Williams, Amy Hudock, Roger West, Ross Magoulas, Trisha Gufstafson, and Padgett Skardon.

This one-hour performance reading is inspired by The Cigar Factory by Michele Moore, to be published by the University of South Carolina Press in February 2016. Pat Conroy praises the novel as “Courageous, transcendent—a story in which the truth of language and the truth of lives hold equal sway.” The performance is a musical prose poem of Charleston labor, spoken through 12 voices, a medley of Gullah-Geechee and Charleston English-Geechie.

Wells Fargo Distinguished Public Lecture Series Event, Dr. Stephen Berry

Dr. Stephen Berry poses at the Wells Fargo Distinguished Public Lecture Series Event

Dr. Stephen Berry poses at the Wells Fargo Distinguished Public Lecture Series Event

The Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program, in collaboration with Wells Fargo, was pleased to host Dr. Stephen Berry on Thursday, October 8th. Dr. Berry is an Associate Professor of History at the Simmons College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Berry presented research findings from his recent publication entitled, A Path in Might Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World. Using the 1735 James Oglethorpe Georgia-bound expedition as his narrative arc, Dr. Berry investigates the story of how people experienced their crossings to the New World in the eighteenth-century. Furthermore, his study includes analyses of gender, race, class, space, and disease. The event was well attended by nearly fifty faculty members and students.


For  more information on Dr. Stephen Berry’s publication, please visit the following website: http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300204230

The Requiem for Rice

Jonathan Greene and Edda L. Fields-Black answer questions filtered from the audience.

“A Dialogue in Charleston and a Watch Party in Pittsburgh: Rice in Gullah Geechee Culture and History”

     The Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program was pleased to host Jonathan Greene,  nationally acclaimed professional artist and founder of the Lowcountry Rice Culture Forum, and Edda L. Fields-Black, Associate Professor of early and pre-colonial African history at Carnegie Mellon University and both producer and librettist of the Requiem for Rice on Thursday, September 16th in the ​School of Sciences and Mathematics Auditorium. The distinguished speakers discussed the Requiem for Rice project and answered questions from an engaged, lively audience.

Audience members share their experience of being members of the Gullah Geecee  culture and society in present-day Charleston.

Audience members share their experience of being members of the Gullah Geecee culture and society in present-day Charleston.

The Requiem for Rice multi-media composition aims to serve as a tribute to those enslaved, exploited, and brutalized on Lowcountry South Carolina and George rice plantations who remain unburied, unmourned, and unmarked.

For more information of the Requiem for Rice project, please visit the following website: http://requiemforrice.com/

Denmark Vesey Monument

Image courtesy of the New York Times.

Denmark Vesey Monument in Hampton Park. Image courtesy of the New York Times.


Today the Denmark Vesey Monument in Hampton Park is a widely accepted and appreciated part of Charleston’s memorial landscape.  The statue and its surrounding plantings form a peaceful corner of the park, a spot which draws locals and tourists alike as both an agreeable place to visit and a symbolic touchstone in the history of racial dynamics in Charleston.  The importance of Vesey as a historic figure only seems to be increasing as his story and legacy become more widely known.  His statue stands as a well-loved and significant counterpoint to other memorial art in Charleston and is quickly becoming a piece that storytellers lean on when explaining Charleston’s unique history.  The monument’s value has proved to be all the more immediate in light of recent events which prove heart-rendingly that the racial wounds of our shared history continue to affect the present in ways both tragic and hopeful.

However, the road to this monument’s erection was anything but easy.  The Denmark Vesey and the Spirit of Freedom Monument Committee began work to install the statue in Charleston way back in 1996.  Work began slowly, for years remaining little more than an idea—the desire to memorialize Vesey and to honor the spirit of freedom which he embodied—coupled with a streak of stubbornness.  The Committee knew that their choice of Vesey might mean that theirs would be an uphill battle, but they decided early on not to compromise on the monument’s subject.

Their journey let to the formation of a non-profit, many City Council committee meetings (some more collegial than others), and a variety of setbacks as funds slowly trickled in.  The decision to use sculptor Ed Dwight as the artist proved fortuitous—Mr. Dwight took the success of the project personally and contributed financially as well as artistically to its completion.  When the owners of Marion Square, the originally intended location for the statue, declined to have it placed there, the Committee saw it as a challenge to find a better location.  Together with Mayor Joe Riley, they selected Hampton Park, which was similarly significant in terms of its proximity to the Citadel, but which provides a more contemplative setting.

The prospect of a Denmark Vesey statue in a public park in Charleston sparked strong opinions, many of which were not positive.  It seemed that every time the proposal made the news, such as when the Committee went before City Council, a new rash of indignation and outright anger made its way into the opinion columns of the Post and Courier.  However, a steady groundswell of support bolstered the project along, and when it finally was unveiled in 2014 it was before a large and appreciative audience.  The proof was in the pudding: while Vesey remains a controversial figure, the enmity surrounding the construction of the monument subsided, and the statue became a place to teach, learn, or just sit and reflect.

Lowcountry Rice Project Forum, Georgetown 2015

Image courtesy of the Lowcountry Rice Project. Found at http://www.lowcountryriceculture.org/Rice-Arts-Forum-2015.html.

Image courtesy of the Lowcountry Rice Project. Found at http://www.lowcountryriceculture.org/Rice-Arts-Forum-2015.html.

Forum explores arts, culture, and rice

Submitted by Dwight McInvaill, Georgetown County Library Director

From the 17th century to the 1920s, the cultivation of rice occurred in the South Carolina Lowcountry, a coastal region of marshes, estuaries, and rivers extending some forty miles inland.   Rice here influenced the arts and culture of the area firstly through the antebellum creation in the Palmetto State of vast commercial wealth based substantially on the knowledge and labors of enslaved African Americans.  Later, after the Civil War and up to the present, this agricultural legacy – due to the influences especially of an enduring and vibrant Gullah culture – has continued to stimulate creativity on local, regional, national, and global levels.

Thanks to the leadership of Gullah artist Jonathan Green, the Lowcountry Rice Culture Committee was formed, and it committed itself to asserting and exploring the importance of this key heritage.  In 2013, the first Lowcountry Rice Culture Forum was held at the College of Charleston.  From September 17-19, 2015, the next forum will occur at a variety of locations in Georgetown County thanks to the efforts of ten community partners and especially the Lowcountry Rice Culture Committee, the Athenaeum Press of Coastal Carolina University, and the Georgetown County Library.

Activities will include the free premiere of an original documentary – thanks to the support of the Humanities Council SC – exploring the creative forces behind nine local Gullah artists and cultural leaders.  In addition, partners’ support and private donations will help underwrite much more such as:

  • The performance at the Winyah Auditorium by the Columbia City Ballet of “Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green,”
  • A free concert on the Kaminski House lawn by the 60-member Freedom Readers Children’s Choir,
  • A Gullah variety show by Ron and Natalie Daise entitled “God’s Trombones,”
  • An exhibition and brunch at the Georgetown County Museum featuring the work of Jonathan Green,
  • And a tour of Hobcaw Barony.

Panel discussions by nine scholars concerning the influences of rice culture on the visual arts of our state throughout the centuries will occur on Friday, September 18, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Waccamaw Neck Branch Library, 41 St. Paul Place, Pawleys Island.  While there will be a $20 fee for this all-day event, it is certainly worth the price of admission due to this roster:

  • Introduction by Jonathan Green and Dwight McInvaill: 10 to 10:30 a.m.
  • Visual arts before the Civil War: 10:30 to noon
  • Sara Arnold, Curator of Collections, Gibbes Museum of Art: “Painters and Patrons: Art in Pre-Civil War Charleston”
  • Daniel Ackermann, Associate Curator, The MESDA Collection: “New Stories from Familiar Objects:  Discovering the Hidden Legacy of African American Craftsmen in Antebellum Southern Decorative Arts”
  • Patricia Williams-Lessane, Executive Director, Avery Research Center: “Antebellum Art and Rice Culture:  Representations of Experiences of Enslaved African Americans who Cultivated Rice”
  • Visual arts from Reconstruction through Mid-20th Century: 1:30 to 3 p.m.
  • Dwight McInvaill – Director, Georgetown County Library: “The Artistic Fieldwork of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith:  Rice Plantation Sketchbooks and Photographs”
  • Laura Engel, Associate Professor, Duquesne University: “Amelia M. Watson’s Plantation Tourism:  Documenting Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation (1863)”
  • Stephen Motte, Curator of Collections and Interpretation, Florence County Museum: Topic to be Announced
  • Contemporary visual arts: 3:30 to 5 p.m.
  • Jonathan Green, Gullah Artist: “Use of Contemporary Narrative Art Capturing the Lowcountry Rice Culture”
  • Victoria Smalls, Director of Development and Community Outreach, Penn Center: “Penn Center:  Promoting and Preserving Gullah Geechee Culture and Art”
  • Leslie King Hammond, Graduate Dean Emeritus, Maryland Institute of Art: “Re/FRACTURED MEMORIES:  Visualizing Rice Culture in South Carolina”


As inspired by Jonathan Green, “The Rice Culture Project is meant to be ‘indiscriminately inclusive,’ to provide a clear frame of reference and safe environment in which such discussions can occur without fear of backlash or misunderstanding. By fostering open and informed dialogue, and by exposing participants to the many aspects and interconnections of Lowcountry culture, we hope to confront differences of opinion directly, resolve conflict, stimulate the local economy, and find common ground on which whites, blacks, Native Americans, immigrants and others can express mutual respect, dampen false debates, and celebrate a common heritage.”

Further details concerning listings and ticket prices can be found on the Georgetown County Library website at http://georgetowncountylibrary.sc.gov/programs/Pages/RiceForum2015.aspx, and reservations can be made by telephoning Georgetown County Digital Librarian Julie Warren at 843-545-3316 or by emailing her at jwarren@gtcounty.org about the Lowcountry Rice Culture Forum 2015.

Charleston Syllabus Prompts Discussions on Race


Following the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston June 17, 2015, scholars around the world began compiling a #charlestonsyllabus to provide context for the attack, especially in regards to race relations, racially-inspired violence, and the history of race in South Carolina and the United States. This syllabus was conceived and coordinated by Chad Williams, associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University, and it follows the creation of separate syllabi created in the aftermath of other violent incidents that have occurred in the U.S., such as the fatal civilian confrontations with police in Baltimore, Md., and Ferguson, Mo.

In the wake of the Emanuel AME Church shooting, and in the spirit of these syllabi, the College of Charleston has compiled its own Charleston Syllabus featuring campus and Lowcountry events that focus on the issues of race relations, black culture in the U.S. and civil rights.

This Charleston Syllabus, compiled by Simon Lewis, professor of English at the College, is not meant to be an exhaustive account of all events at the College related to these themes. But participation in any of these events, Lewis believes, can help our community transcend existing narratives of “division, separation, and hatred.”


Statement from CLAW Director on the Emanuel AME Massacre

Dear Colleagues All,

In her most recent commentary on the Emanuel AME Massacre and Charleston’s response, Julia Eichelberger writes,  “It’s starting to seem possible that we could begin to accord our grief its proper weight. Grief could spur us to make things better, to undertake the much more confusing, much more uncertain work of justice and fairness, of a social infrastructure worthy of the name “community.” We’re succeeding, in this moment, at expressing our wish for that, and that is a start.”  Using Julia’s beautifully eloquent words as a starting point I want to set out some of my own thoughts both as an individual and specifically as the director of the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) program here at the College. Like everyone else I’ve had great difficulty articulating my response—I’ve made more false starts on this statement than I care to count—and I expect that this one too will fail to express what I want it to, and will hit false notes both in my ears and some of yours. So my apologies in advance for inevitably falling short.

Last week’s mass-murder at Mother Emanuel left us in shock and tears. The subsequent response at the prayer vigils at Morris Brown AME, at the TD Arena, and elsewhere, and the resumption of services at Emanuel, including last night’s prayer meeting, has shown a more defiant joy than any of us could have imagined.  Is it right to be proud of this city on such an occasion? Maybe it really is. We are not an integrated city, but we are one city, sharing in grief and outrage, and asserting a common desire for love and unity to overcome this latest manifestation of hatred and division that, though centuries old, still lingers. And all who live here now, today, are part of this beautiful city’s troubled, troubling, and often brutal history.

For the past 20 years or so the CLAW program has been exploring the nature of this shared history and the radically uneven ways in which different groups have experienced the “same” events. I’d like to think we have been working in exactly the same spirit and with the same ultimate end as set out in Julia’s words above: undertaking that confusing  and complicated work that leads to justice and fairness, and a social infrastructure worthy of the name “community.” This is why on a recent Facebook post I wrote that our work begins again.

Less than two weeks ago, but still days before our most recent end of innocence and complacency, Stephanie Yuhl, a historian whose book, A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston, takes Charleston to task for glossing over its history in the manner of the beguilingly beautiful watercolors of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, gave the final presentation at the CLAW-sponsored Southern Association of Women’s Historians conference. Although she still remains critical of Charleston’s history and its white elite’s narcissistic self-representation, she clearly also still loves this place, and her love is encouraged by the strides the city has made in the last few years to present a more comprehensive and inclusive story. In conversation after the presentation, Stephanie was light-hearted and upbeat.  No less harsh on past failures she told us that she thought “Charleston’s going to be all right.”  It was heartening and validating to hear her say so.

Four days later Dylann Roof vented his violent hatred in the basement of Emanuel AME, taking the lives of nine—nine—of our fellow citizens, including one of this community’s finest spiritual and political leaders.

I do not claim Clementa Pinckney as a personal friend, but we had worked together on a number of CLAW programs. At the end of 2012 he had allowed us to promote Emanuel AME as the go-to church for the “Watch Night” service on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation’s coming into effect on January 1st 1863.  He had twice allowed me to apply (unsuccessfully, alas, on both occasions) to the BBC to have the producers of their weekly television show “Songs of Praise come to Charleston” as part of the Jubilee Project or as part of our commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War.  Most recently he had stepped in at the very last minute to give the homily at our memorial service on Hampton Park in honor of all of the dead of the Civil War. You can see that thoughtful, wise and generous address on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6T6OxSVkrU, and read an account of it by Yale University historian David Blight at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/pinckney-charleston-civil-war-150-years/396455/ (Blight was actually anxious that Pinckney had been too generous in his comments). Immediately after the memorial service, Pinckney had had to go to another event at 4pm (I believe in response to the Walter Scott shooting), before ending the day at the Nat Fuller’s Feast reenactment that brought together an eclectic array of community leaders in the spirit of reconciliation—literally breaking bread at the same table (and partaking of a fabulous feast, too!). For Chef Kevin Mitchell’s account of that event in the form of his “Letter to Nat Fuller,” please check out https://jubileeprojectsc.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/chef-kevin-mitchells-letter-to-nat-fuller/, and for context on the original feast in 1865, take some time to explore the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI) online exhibition at http://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/nat_fuller.

All of this is to show not just what a terrible terrible loss we have suffered as a community as a result of the murder of Reverend Clementa Pinckney and his eight parishioners, but also to show how intentionally the CLAW program has been working toward Julia’s “social infrastructure worthy of the name of community.” But where do we go from here, and how do we continue? Mercifully, the public response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, so much so that a number of commentators have become wary that we will again retreat into the complacent belief that the love and unity of the bridge demonstration, for instance, really means that Charleston is going to be “all right,” already is “all right” without any further structural change or any further self-scrutiny.  The CLAW program is absolutely committed to facilitating that further self-scrutiny as a means to effecting structural change. Indeed, for me, Roof’s attack reasserts for me the vital—life-and-death—importance of this work. I hope all at the College will join me in rededicating ourselves to our fundamental mission as educators in inculcating the wisdom (not technical knowledge) that is itself liberty. For all.

Part of that self-scrutiny must include the uncomfortable truth that for most of its history the College, as an exclusively white institution, has been part of the problem, and that without appropriate action and leadership we can still be—or at least be painted as—part of the problem. Today, however, and in the coming months, I believe we as a faculty have a unique opportunity to be part of the solution. Kevin Keenan circulated an e-mail yesterday indicating one way in which our choice of Freedom Summer as a common read enables us to hold the necessary dialogues. If you have suggestions for additional events or additional steps that we need to take, please share them with us so that come August we can set out an appropriate program that honors the memory of the men and women killed last week, and that lets us do our part in trying to ensure that no such event happens again.


Director of the Program in the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World