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Ask the Cougar

by Dr. Bernard E. Powers Jr, Director

In Charleston recently, I had an unusually rewarding and even singular experience in my lengthy career as a historian.  I met and conversed with Glenn “Doc” Rivers, head coach of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. For those who do not know, “ Doc” Rivers is a towering figure among NBA coaches. During his stellar career as a player, he was on the roster of the Atlanta Hawks, the Los Angeles Clippers, the New York Knicks, and the Orlando Magic. He began his coaching career in 1999, with the Magic and the next year, he was chosen Coach of the Year. Rivers subsequently led the Boston Celtics to an NBA Championship in 2008, he coached the Clippers and since fall 2020, he has been the head coach of the 76ers.

While “Doc” Rivers’ stellar career achievements in the NBA are worthy of extended conversation, this is only the background to the story that I must share with you. His well-established reputation as a social justice activist is equally if not more important than his athletic prowess. Over the years he has used his increasingly large platform to call attention to a variety of social ills and to urge solutions and redress. He was deeply troubled by the January 6thassault on the national capitol and the sources that motivated this unprecedented and shocking event. Not surprisingly, he is especially concerned about contemporary manifestations of racism that continue to plague our country. He is a member of the NBA’s Social Justice Coalition which is “an organization of players, coaches, team governors, and executives leading the NBA family’s advocacy work to dismantle racial inequality and advance social justice.”  The organization has prioritized the need for new policies that protect voting rights and criminal justice reform, especially related to racial disparities in drug sentencing. In recent years “Doc” has personally spoken in favor of sensible gun regulation and he has urged police reform to address the all-too-common cases of unarmed black men killed at the hands of officers.

As a coach “Doc” Rivers is a teacher, so it is not surprising that he is also alarmed about recent efforts to prevent history and social studies teachers from teaching about the fundamental roles race and racism have had in the development of American history. He opined that “teaching American history is under assault right now. And it’s not Black history or teaching about slavery, it’s American history.”  He considers it an educational dereliction, that he only learned about events like the Tulsa Riot of 1921 as an adult. Going further Rivers poignantly asked, “Imagine if we were not taught the history of Germany and (emphasis added) the Holocaust?”  For him, they are part of the whole story and the same is true for any nation’s history. The laudatory and the shameful must both be taught because both shaped how a nation developed. Both also have legacies still felt today. His clarion call is to “know (and teach) your history” in its fullness.

Powers with “Doc” Rivers Alex Subers/Philadelphia 76ers.

 It is this deep commitment to historical truth that brought “Doc” Rivers to Charleston recently and occasioned our meeting. He visited the city before in the early 1990s, while playing for the New York Knicks; the team held a training camp at the College of Charleston. Now, “Doc” decided that the 76ers could also benefit from a trip to Charleston so he scheduled a pre-season training camp at The Citadel for the last week in September. Normally the team would have practiced at a complex in New Jersey but now for a variety of reasons, including the earlier covid related restrictions, the coach thought something different was warranted. In addition to the intense practice sessions, traveling, dining, and lodging together would be important for promoting the kind of esprit de corps he wanted to strengthen. “Doc” Rivers also recognized that the players and particularly the younger ones would benefit from visiting Charleston, such an important city for understanding the general history of our country as well as African American history and culture. This was to be a total immersive experience, focused on basketball, camaraderie, and history.

I was contacted by Annmarie Loflin, Chief of Staff of Basketball Operations for the 76ers who informed me about the upcoming plans. I must say I was intrigued and challenged at the prospect of working with a different audience, which I learned not only included the athletes but also the support staff and executives of the organization. Annmarie had done important preliminary planning and we shared ideas about what would constitute an appropriate history-oriented educational component of the training camp. Time was at a premium because, athletics was the fundamental purpose of the visit; this meant we had to ensure that we got the most from every minute devoted to the educational experiences. Finally, we decided that I would provide some short talks and since the team was  practicing at The Citadel, we would visit the Old Slave Mart, the International African American Museum, and the Avery Research Center.

On September 26th I briefly addressed the visitors at the 76ers’ team dinner. I tried to set the tone for the educational experiences to come by explaining the significance of the Lowcountry and Charleston for African American history. This included outlining Charleston’s unique role in the Atlantic slave trade, the significance of rice culture in the Lowcountry and the rise of a black majority in the colony and state. I also spoke about the distinctive African American culture which developed in the Lowcountry known as Gullah/Geechee. I tried to make this talk personal to the players by explaining three things. Firstly, black Carolinians cultivated a series of values such as mutual respect, cooperation, spirituality, and resilience that allowed them to survive the otherwise soul-killing inferno we know that slavery was.  I urged them to be guided by writer William Faulkner’s famous observation that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  Therefore, I told the audience, “We have much to learn about those who have preceded us, those who have made a way for us.”  It was particularly important for young people “to imbibe the values of the people who have made the history that we learn about.”  This allowed me to explain that as 76ers they have their own culture and to urge them to cultivate those values from their forebears that could promote their group success now. Secondly, I explained that since Charleston was the country’s most important port for the importation of Africans during the slave trade, it was likely that many of them could trace their ancestry back to this place. I shared that earlier that afternoon casual conversation with staffer Rudy Yuille revealed that his ancestry derived from the Greenville, SC. Lastly, I told them that Africans had a proud record of resistance and despite every effort slaveholding society made to justify enslavement, black people never accepted its legitimacy and fought back in myriad ways.  As an illustration I offered the 1739 Stono Rebellion, the largest and most significant insurrection of enslaved Africans in the British mainland colonies. During the presentation it appeared that many in  room were listening intently and I was relieved that the immediate feedback was positive. In fact, “Doc” Rivers  said that “many players, and not only players, coaches, came up to me and said, ‘Wow, I never was taught that in my history class.”

Powers speaks to players and staffers at the team dinner. Alex Subers/Philadelphia 76ers.

Two days later we embarked on our Charleston history tour. As we left the Hotel Bennett we passed the Old Citadel, (today’s Embassy Suites Hotel), the original site of the South Carolina Military College and I explained that it was the eventual response to the foiled 1822 Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy. This  was an opportunity to illustrate how much of Charleston’s African American history remains hidden while in plain sight. I also explained that the current Citadel had evolved from its white supremacist origins and that the 76ers training camp there was both the substance and symbol of that change.

Our destination was the Old Slave Mart Museum where the 76ers toured the exhibits and the players had a special lecture focused on slavery and the antebellum domestic slave trade. Many were deeply moved by the scenes and stories of inhumanity portrayed there. After learning that enslaved people made bricks, and that the makers’ fingerprints could sometimes be found on individual bricks, Matisse Thybulle was astounded. He observed “to be able to stand, and look at where somebody’s fingers were- . . . somebody who was being bought, and sold, and torn apart from their family-was a very moving experience.” For Tobias Harris the most “eye-opening thing” was the prices paid for enslaved people. “Wow, somebody was bought for $450. Its horrible. It was sad to hear, but those were what the times were.”

The next stop was at the Cooper River where the International African American Museum, scheduled to open in January 2023 is under construction. Located at Gadsden’s Wharf, one of the country’s most important sites of the Atlantic slave trade, the visitors viewed contemplative gardens, a memorial to the African Ancestors and the outline of a building once used as storage space on the old wharf. Dr. Tonya Matthews, the museum C.E.O. took them inside for a quick look at a few of the partially installed galleries. The African background was featured in one place, South Carolina history was highlighted in another location and the Transatlantic Corridor immersed visitors in a dazzling pictorial experience of the African Atlantic diaspora. I explained that the museum uses the word “international” in its name because the history of black South Carolinians has many important international connections which shaped the state and the United States. So a crucial point is that African American history is not confined by the limits of the United States.  Mattise Thybulle who is Haitian-American was elated that Haitian history is part of the museum’s international focus. He said the Haitian story “was really meaningful”  because “they had a successful rebellion against” French imperialism and also overthrew slavery.  It is “an amazing story that doesn’t get spoken about often.”  I assured him that the museum aims to correct that.

Powers and Mattise Thybulle at the International African American Museum
Alex Subers/Philadelphia 76ers.

 The final stop for the day was at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center, which is a museum and archival collection specializing in South Carolina’s black history with emphasis on the Lowcountry. Avery was one of Charleston’s earliest schools for blacks following the Civil War. Its story reflects how newly emancipated black people used their freedoms to improve their lives and build institutions. Avery produced many members of the state’s black educational elite and many were also dedicated to promoting racial justice. The visitors met the staff including Director Tamara Butler and viewed artwork on display by local artists. The 76ers were also treated to a meal prepared by acclaimed Gullah Geechee Chef B.J. Dennis who provided an insider’s personal perspective on the culture.

My whirlwind experience with the 76ers was too short yet it was very meaningful. Many of these young men defied the “jock” stereotype; they brought enthusiasm and a genuine curiosity to their own history. Many were also surprised at the complexity and wide-ranging impact of that history. All that I spoke with appreciated the educational experience and were eager to know more. Furkan Korkmaz a 76er born in Turkey asked many questions because as he said, “I really wanted to learn. . . .Now, when people talk on TV, when my teammates talk, now I really know what we’re talking about. . . .and it helps people get to know each other too.”  Joel Embiid a 76er born in Cameroon who recently became an American citizen said “it was good to learn about the history, slavery, and all that happened with my people-my African people-coming here, the people that gave their lives for us to be able to be in this position.”

After the final practice on Saturday, I was called to stand  in the midst of the circle of players and coaches. I thanked “Doc” Rivers for his leadership, for the decision to come back to Charleston and for his deep commitment to building not just athletes but whole men who were positioned to become extraordinary change agents. It is easy to see why “Doc” Rivers is considered one of the “Fifteen Greatest Coaches in NBA History.” This final gathering was my opportunity to reinforce what I had earlier told the players about their connection to Charleston’s history. I reminded them that while captive Africans entered Charleston harbor, their spirits were never broken; they were resilient. They came from many different places but once here they, came together to create a new people, an African American people.  This was the team’s task now to merge their talents and egos into something new that exemplifies 76ers culture. I told them that the motto of Avery, the school that they visited was “no turning back, going forward,” that they were already champions and the goal now was to win a championship. Let’s hope that the spirits of the history makers the 76ers learned about in Charleston will give them strength, determination  and resilience and  to guide them to victories on and off the court.  Only time will tell but I am certainly rooting for them!

Powers with the players and Doc Rivers at the end of the training camp.
Alex Subers/Philadelphia 76ers.

 

Selected Links:

https://nbacoaches.com/doc-rivers/

https://www.cbsnews.com/philadelphia/news/76ers-doc-rivers-merges-black-history-lessons-into-training-camp/

https://www.si.com/nba/76ers/news/76ers-will-hold-training-camp-citadel-charleston

 

Conference on the Stono Rebellion Sep 8-10

By Julia Eichelberger
Posted on 5 September 2022 | 8:40 am — 
CSSC Director Bernard Powers writes,
            Friends of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, this will be an exciting week because The Slave Dwelling Project is convening its seventh national conference based on the theme:  “The Stono Rebellion and the Atlantic World”  The dates are September 8-10.
Conference title and dates with background photo of rice field
This year’s theme offers an in-depth look at the 1739 rebellion by enslaved Africans and African Americans along the Stono River in South Carolina and elsewhere in the LowCountry. Conference events will take place at the Stern Center on the campus of the College of Charleston. Conference-associated activities will occur on key sites related to the Stono Rebellion, with additional opportunities for self-guided activities in and around the Charleston area.
          The seventh National Slave Dwelling Project Conference is made possible through major funding by The 1772 Foundation.  Other sponsors are the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program and the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program (CLAW) at the College of Charleston.
Complete information on the conference including registration can be found at:
            Hoping to see you there and help spread the word!

Dr. Bernard Powers, Director

Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston

Photo of Bernard Powers in a Charleston street

Dr. Bernard Powers

by Bernard E. Powers Jr.

This year marks two centuries since the life and death of Denmark Vesey, a character whose role in Charleston’s history is even today still debated and often maligned.  We want to take this opportunity to briefly set forth some of the most salient features of his life and to particularly contextualize his insurrectionary plans and their aftermath.  There are many Vesey-related sites in Charleston today, including a marker which commemorates his life that was erected in Hampton Park in 2014.  Beginning on Thursday, July 14, there will be a series of activities in the city intended to further illuminate Denmark Vesey and the implications of his life.  This will be the most significant Denmark Vesey-related public event since 2014. Details of this Denmark Vesey Bicentenary are provided in this link. We hope you will take the time to participate.

Denmark Vesey was part of a radical trans-Atlantic antislavery tradition. In Africa and everywhere bondage existed, African people resisted enslavement. On plantations and in cities, slavery created a perpetual state of war, a battlefield where, as historian John Blassingame asserted, “slaves fought masters for physical and psychological survival.” This stark reality shaped Denmark Vesey.

Born enslaved in approximately 1767 on St. Thomas, Denmark was purchased there by slave trader Joseph Vesey and relocated to Charleston in 1783. Denmark remained enslaved until 1799 when he purchased his freedom with money from a winning lottery ticket. Now free, Denmark worked as a carpenter, had three enslaved wives and numerous children. His inability to free his family members was a source of continual frustration. This problem was aggravated by the routine racial discrimination free blacks experienced in Charleston and throughout the South.

A bronze statue of Denmark Vesey

Statue of Denmark Vesey holding a Bible and carpenter’s tools. Hampton Park, Charleston, SC.

Denmark Vesey found some comfort in spirituality. In 1817 he was a communicant at the white Second Presbyterian Church. However, after Charleston’s African Church formed in 1818 Vesey joined, becoming a class leader. Led by free black minister Morris Brown, this congregation consisted primarily of slaves who left Charleston’s white Methodist Church and affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) of Philadelphia. Being affiliated with this church was revolutionary, as a rejection of white authority, and because the A.M.E. Church was an abolitionist denomination! By this initiative taken by black Charlestonians, antislavery now extended into South Carolina, a state with an extraordinary commitment to slavery.  Unsurprisingly, white citizens and officials used every means to harass the church’s members and leaders, further radicalizing Vesey.

In a bold plan, Denmark Vesey and a cadre of skilled, privileged slaves organized rural and city slaves to overpower the municipal guard, arm themselves, set fires and escape to Haiti. Haiti was revered as the only place where enslaved people overthrew their colonial masters and created an independent nation. Offering legal protection to blacks who reached its shores, Haiti changed the geography of freedom in the Atlantic World. No wonder, Vesey’s compatriots tried communicating with Haitian leaders. However, their plans were betrayed. Trials followed, Denmark and thirty-four others were executed, and thirty-seven men were transported from the country. Municipal authorities also destroyed the African Church.

Denmark Vesey’s impact survived his demise in part because white South Carolinians never recovered from his dreadful plans. That is why writer Edwin Holland urged vigilance, describing slaves as “Barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.”  To counter the threat, Charleston’s police force expanded and the Citadel began in 1842 to provide white men with military training to protect a slaveholding society. The Negro Seaman Acts of 1822-23 now required jailing out-of-state free black sailors as dangerous antislavery influences.  Even so, abolitionists were not easily thwarted and some antislavery messages relied on the memory of Denmark Vesey. Reverend Henry Highland Garnet’s famous 1843 “Address to the Slaves” was an attempt to communicate directly with enslaved people and to encourage insurrection. In the speech Garnet elevated Vesey alongside Toussaint L’Ouverture, Nat Turner and Joseph Cinque in the honored pantheon of freedom fighters.  Then Garnet urged his audience to seize the moment:  “Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. . .Rather die freemen than live to be slaves. . . .Let your motto be resistance! resistance! RESISTANCE!”  Similarly, popular novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s  Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp developed the theme of slave resistance.  Dred, one of the main characters, was a fugitive slave maroon whose personality and insurrectionary plans embodied the characteristics of both Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.

The foregoing developments and others such as John Brown’s 1859 Raid and the election of Abraham Lincoln the next year, coupled with South Carolina’s black majority, propelled the state into secession and war.  These radical steps were taken to protect white lives, to escape Denmark Vesey’s looming shadow; the effort failed and almost destroyed the nation in the process. Today’s persistent racial ills two centuries after Denmark Vesey’s life reveal how limited his options were, and how potent is the legacy of slavery. Vesey’s shadow persists, demanding we confront that legacy or risk the health and stature of the nation.

Bernard Powers, director of the College’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, is History Professor Emeritus at the College of Charleston. He is the author of _Black Charlestonians: A Social History 1822-1885_ (1994), the co-author of _We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel_ (2016), which contextualizes the city’s 2015 racially motivated murders. Among numerous other works, his  most recent essay is entitled “Denmark Vesey, South Carolina, and Haiti: Bourne, Bound and Battered by a Common Wind” in James Spady’s _Fugitive Movements: Commemorating the Denmark Vesey Affair and Black Radical Antislavery in the Atlantic World_ (2022).  Dr. Powers served as the interim president of Charleston’s International African American Museum (IAAM). He will participate in a panel discussion on Vesey on July 14. Cover of book "Fugitive Movements"

The Anson Street African Burial Ground (ASABG) Project Team will be hosting two days of events titled “Truth Rising: Honoring African Presence in Charleston.” These activities reflect the group’s work studying, protecting, and honoring Gullah Geechee burial grounds, including the unmarked graves found during construction on the Gaillard Center in 2013.

On Tuesday, May 3rd from 6:30pm to 8:30pm the group will be at the Cannon Street Arts Center at 134 Cannon Street, where attendees can learn more about the ongoing research into the thirty-six individuals found at the Gaillard Center site. Between 5pm and 6pm free DNA testing will also be available.

Wednesday, May 4th is the third anniversary of the Gaillard Center site reburial ceremony, and the ASABG will be hosting a celebration with libations, music, and speeches. The event will be at 2 George Street from 6:30pm to 7:30pm, and attendees will have another free DNA testing opportunity from 7pm to 8pm.

The full itinerary is below. Participants can learn more about these events and RSVP at ASABGProject.com.

Two Upcoming Events with Dr. James O’Neil Spady

By Danielle Cox
Posted on 7 April 2022 | 1:02 pm — 

A bronze statue of Denmark VeseyThe Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston will be hosting two upcoming events with the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) program featuring Dr. James O’Neil Spady, Associate Professor of American History at Soka University in Aliso Viejo, California. Dr. Spady is the author of Education and the Racial Dynamics of Settler Colonialism in Early America: Georgia and South Carolina, ca. 1700 – ca. 1820, and editor and contributor of the book Fugitive Movements: Commemorating the Denmark Vesey Affair and Black Radical Antislavery in the Atlantic World.

On April 18th at 6pm EST Dr. Spady will be giving CSSC’s annual lecture entitled “A Movement, not a Conspiracy: A New Narrative of the 1822 Denmark Vesey ‘Affair.'” Attendees can join online via Zoom or in person in Room 101 at the Rita Liddy Hollings Science Center at 58 Coming Street, Charleston. Register for tickets on Eventbrite.

Dr. Spady will also be leading the seminar “Mapping a Movement: Archival and Digital Methods for Representing the Social and Spatial Connections of the 1822 Denmark Vesey ‘Affair'” on April 19th at 3:30pm EST in Room 360 of Addlestone Library. Addlestone Library currently requires a College of Charleston faculty or student ID for entrance.

a man and two women, Polly Sheppard and Margaret Seidler, standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Polly Sheppard and Margaret Seidler on the Edmund Pettus Bridge along with Margaret’s husband, Bob, Summer 2021.

On Wednesday, March 30, the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston will be hosting a talk as part of the Critical Conversations Featured Series. Participants are Polly Sheppard, survivor of the 2015 Mother Emanuel AME shooting, and Margaret Seidler, a descendant of three generations of Charleston slave traders. The event will be moderated by Marjory Wentworth, former poet laureate of South Carolina, and Dr. Bernard Powers of the CSSC.

Sheppard is a Licensed Practical Nurse from Florence, SC, who has spoken about her experiences at Mother Emanuel before Barack Obama and the Democratic National Convention. She serves as a member of the Board to construct the Mother Emanuel Memorial at the tragedy’s site, and founded the Polly Sheppard Foundation scholarship to provide financial support to Trident Technical College nursing students pursuing careers in prison health.

Seidler is a retired leadership and organization development consultant, and has authored several books on business and human resources. Since the Mother Emanuel AME shooting she has advocated for local voices in community and racial healing initiatives. With former Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen she started the Charleston Illumination Project, a year-long project to strengthen respect and relationships between police and communities.

The event will be at 6pm EST, in person at the Rita Liddy Hollings Science Center Auditorium (58 Coming St, Charleston, SC, 29401) and over Zoom. Participants must register online.

Upcoming Event: “Black Lives Book Talk”

By Danielle Cox
Posted on 24 February 2022 | 3:16 pm — 
Dr. Mari Crabtree

Dr. Mari Crabtree, author of “My Soul is a Witness”: The Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching, 1940−1970.

As part of the Black Lives World Affairs Signature Series, hosted by the College of Charleston’s School of Languages, Cultures, and World Affairs, Dr. Mari Crabtree will be holding a book talk entitled “Lynching’s Afterlives: Memory, Trauma, and the Sensibility of the Blues.” The talk will be over Zoom on Thursday, March 3 at 6pm.

Dr. Crabtree teaches at the College of Charleston in the department of African American studies. Her book “My Soul is a Witness”: The Traumatic Afterlife of Lynching, 1940−1970 is set to be published by Yale University Press this year:

My Soul is a Witness ­­­­­traces the long afterlife of lynching in the South through the traumatic memories it left in its wake. By interweaving the stories of people and places haunted by lynching, Mari N. Crabtree unearths how Black southerners lived through and beyond these horrors, offering a theory of Black collective trauma and memory rooted in the ironic spirit of the blues sensibility—a spirit of misdirection and cunning that blends joy and pain.

Jim Crow and its threat of violent, if not deadly, reprisals tried to impose silence upon Black southerners, but they did find their voices. They often shielded their loved ones from the most painful memories of local lynchings with strategic silences but also told lynching stories about vengeful ghosts or a wrathful God or the deathbed confessions of a lyncher tormented by his past. They protested lynching and its legacies through art and activism, and they mourned those lost to a mob’s fury. In these and other ways, they infused a blues element into their lynching narratives as they confronted traumatic memories and kept the blues at bay, even if just for a spell. Telling their stories troubles the simplistic binary of resistance or suffering that has tended to dominate narratives of Black life and reminds us that, amid the utter devastation of lynching, were glimmers of hope and an affirmation of life.

View Dr. Crabtree’s faculty profile for more information on her work.

To register for this event: https://cofc.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_CI3GDDlUSH6_9oLPjccMyw 

Upcoming Event: “The International African American Museum”

By Danielle Cox
Posted on 24 February 2022 | 12:52 pm — 
An 1808 advertisement for the sale of slaves at Gadsden's Wharf

Charleston Courier, January 27, 1808

This Saturday, February 26, 2022, the Town of Mount Pleasant will be hosting a presentation on the International African American Museum (IAAM) as part of its Black History Month events series. The museum is scheduled to open later this year and will house memorial gardens, exhibits and collections, event spaces, and a genealogy research center. It stands at Gadsden’s Wharf, where many enslaved Africans first stepped foot on American soil.

The event will be held at 3pm in the Town Hall Council Chambers, 100 Ann Edwards Lane, Mount Pleasant, SC, and will also be broadcast live on YouTube.

Speakers will include Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, CEO of the IAAM, and Dr. Bernard E. Powers, Jr., member of the IAAM Board of Directors and its former interim president. The presentation will also include a performance by Ms. Ann Caldwell, a singer, songwriter, producer, and storyteller who has been a part of the Charleston music scene for twenty-five years.

For more information on the Mount Pleasant Historical Commission’s Black History Month events, please visit their website.

Please also see the IAAM site for more about their mission and events, including updates on its opening.

Logo of the Universities Studying Slavery ConsortiumKing’s and Dalhouse University will be hosting a pre-conference panel at 3pm, November 1, 2021 on the theme of Slavery and Reparations: African Nova Scotia, Canada and Beyond. The panel discussion will feature Dr. Andrea Douglas, Director of the Jefferson School African America Heritage Centre in Charlottesville, Virginia; Cikiah Thomas, Chairperson of the International Working Committee of the Global African Congress; and Delvina Bernard, a PhD candidate at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia studying reparations and reparatory justice. The event is in anticipation of the 2023 Universities Studying Slavery Conference that will be held in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The panel will be followed at 6pm by a keynote lecture by Sir Hilary Beckles, a noted professor and lecturer on social justice and minority empowerment. Dr. Afua Cooper, professor of Black Canadian history at Dalhousie University, will be the Discussant.

Attendance is free and the event will be held over Zoom. Click here to register.

For additional information on the event and participants, download the full flyer.

CSSC Faculty Studying Slavery: Mary Jo Fairchild

By Danielle Cox
Posted on 10 September 2021 | 12:00 pm — 
A headshot of Mary Jo Fairchild

This post, written by Mary Jo Fairchild, is one of a series that documents work studying slavery by faculty members of the CSSC.

As an archivist and historian, I gravitate towards projects that leverage research and interrogation of historic records to support and uplift social justice-oriented community work. Working with the research committee of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston (CSSC)  gives me the opportunity to flex and engage both of these seemingly disparate devotions.

I remember the first time I began researching the College of Charleston’s ties to slavery and oppression. It was 2010 or so and I had recently completed graduate course work in American History with an emphasis on African American History at the College of Charleston. Not long after, I was appointed the Director of Archives and Research for the oldest and largest private archive in the state, the South Carolina Historical Society. My daily duties revolved around operating a bustling reading room, where students, community members, and scholars would visit and subsequently spend hours examining historic letters, diaries, newspapers, ledgers, images, maps, pamphlets and more. Very quickly I became adept at connecting a researcher with a document or record stored in one of the crowded vaults that might help answer the question that brought them to the archives.   

Of course, I had questions of my own and on one quiet afternoon, I fired up the old microfilm machine in the back of the library to examine capitation tax records for clues about the identity of a person named Tom Peace, whose name appears in the minutes of the Board of Trustees in several instances throughout the 19th century.  At his death at “about 75 or more years” of age in 1887, the Board of Trustees published a tribute to “Old Tom, the janitor” which included the fact that Tom “boasted that he had Indian blood in his veins and his physiognomy justified the claim.” 1

A page with newspaper clippings and handwritten text announcing the death of Tom Peace

Let me pause here for a moment. Capitation tax records deserve what Shereen Marisol Maraji and Gene Demby, hosts of NPR’s Code Switch podcast (consider this a HUGE plug for one of my favorite podcasts!), call a brief explanatory comma. Prior to emancipation, free persons of color in the city of Charleston were required to pay an annual “capitation tax” or head tax. Basically, free Black people (also referred to as free persons of color in the antebellum South) had to pay the city for their “free” status. Since the white ruling class could not benefit directly from the unpaid labor of free persons of color, they enacted an ordinance that taxed them to make up for the profits they would generate if enslaved, the default status of Black people in antebellum the South. The records include the names, ages, occupations, real estate holdings, and more for free Black people living in Charleston from 1811 to 1860. It is essential to acknowledge that the original purpose for keeping records for capitation taxes was rooted in the subjugation of Black lives. Nearly 300 years later, the words on the page provide the inheritors of the records with a valuable source for learning more about individuals who occupied what CSSC’s own Executive Director Bernard Powers calls an “anomalous” status, completely “dictated by the region’s commitment to slavery” in his monograph Black Charlestonians, A Social History, 1822-1855. 2

Examination of capitation tax records yielded no direct information about Tom Peace, although starting in 1845 there is a woman named Isabella Peace listed. By 1850 and 1852, the records indicate Isabella Peace was living on “St. Philip’s street near George” and at the “corner of College and George”, respectively. Both of these locations are at the heart of the college campus. I began to speculate. Was it possible that Isabella was some kin or relation to Tom Peace?

A black and white microfilm scan listing the names and streets of several individuals, including Isabella Peace of St. Philip Street

A decade after I first found Isabella Peace in the capitation tax records, I am now an archivist in Special Collections at the College of Charleston and work regularly with the College’s archives; so, not long ago I picked up the research thread I still held in the back of my mind for Tom Peace and decided to look a bit deeper. I followed financial transactions and discovered that the Treasurer of the College, Charles Fraser, was making regular monthly payments for “Tom’s wages” to a woman named Anne Wagner starting in 1829.

A handwritten receipt for $30 paid by Charles Fraser to Ann Wagner on 13 July 1829.

Could this be the Tom Peace to whom the Board of Trustees paid tribute in 1887? It is certainly possible since Tom Peace was said to be 75 years of age at his death which would make him 17 years old in 1829. Furthermore, according to the Charleston City Directory published in 1830, Anne Wagner resided at 52 St. Philip Street – again, at the heart of campus in the antebellum era. Did Ann Wagner hire Tom’s labor to her neighbors at the College of Charleston? Could Isabella Peace listed in the capitation tax records have been Tom Peace’s daughter? The silences and omissions of the historical record leave us with more questions than answers. Had the labors of men and women like Tom and Isabella Peace been properly acknowledged, compensated, and valued, we would have more than a set of financial transactions to mark their lives. It is time to mark their names and publicly acknowledge their roles and contributions.

As I said at the top, I am frequently drawn to archival research projects but I learned how to wield historical research methods for racial justice from the many scholars of race and slavery I’ve worked with in the archives. Edda Fields-Black taught me about multi-generational Black kinship networks in the Sea Islands and Toni Carrier helped me understand how to help people trace their family history when their ancestors were enslaved. Darlene Clarke Hine taught me how to look for the contributions of Black women in the historic record when the white record-makers did everything they could to erase them and Andrea Williams brought her graduate students to the archives to experience how people of African descent, enslaved and free, are present in the archives if one looks close enough and reads the silences. Gerald Horne demonstrated how the rare published travel diaries in the archives offer important perspectives absent in business ledgers and diaries kept by enslavers and Rita Reynolds took me along her journey to tell the stories of free Black women living and working in South Carolina during the antebellum era. I poured over the pages of eighteenth century ledgers searching for the name of Priscilla, a young girl kidnapped from her home in West Africa and enslaved by members of the Ball family, scratched on a page in iron gall ink to help Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Edward Ball tell her story to a national audience.   

I am humbled to continue to use the skills I’ve learned over the years to participate and contribute to the mission and vision of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston. In solidarity with other entities and programs on campus including the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World program, the CSSC provides a platform and support for scholars, faculty, students, the larger community to collaboratively mine evidence from the past, both material, written, and what exists “in between the lines”, to demonstate how the College of Charleston would not exist as we know it without the contributions of people who were historically marginalized.


Sources

College of Charleston Archives, Historical Series. Special Collections and Archives, College of Charleston Libraries.

Powers, Bernard. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822-1855. University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

Farrell, Jessica. “History, Memory, and Slavery at the College of Charleston, 1785 – 1810.” Chrestomathy: Annual Review of Undergraduate Research Vol 7, 2008: pp. 52 – 71: https://chrestomathy.cofc.edu/documents/vol7/farrell.pdf

Rogers, Kaylee. “Overworked and Underpaid: ‘Black’ Work at the College of Charleston”. Chrestomathy: Annual Review of Undergraduate Research, Vol 7, 2008: pp. 227-247.

“South Carolina, Charleston, Free Negro Capitation Books, 1811-1860,” https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/3405101.

Charleston City Directories: https://www.ccpl.org/city-directories


Footnotes

  1. CofC Board of Trustees Minutes, April 1887.
  2. Powers, Black Charlestonians, pg. 36 -37.
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