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Archives For November 30, 1999

Portraiture and Slavery: Reflections and Resistance

By Lauren Davila
Posted on 27 January 2023 | 12:26 pm — 

Check out this great opportunity to learn about American portraiture made during slavery at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s event

Tuesday, January 31, 5:00–6:00 p.m. 
Online via Zoom

“This conversation with Drs. Adrienne L. Childs, John Stauffer, and Jennifer Van Horn will explore the approaches to portraiture made during slavery and in relation to slavery and race. Discover how the use of photography, prints, material culture, and painting varied according to sectional differences in the United States as well as across the Atlantic.

Moderated by Portrait Gallery Historian Kate Clarke Lemay, this program is part of the Greenberg Steinhauser Forum in American Portraiture.”

Join the conversation and sign up for free here!

 

 

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

 

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