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Acknowledging African American Contributions & History on C of C’s Campus

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | September 23, 2017 | No Comment |

I’m honored to contribute to the Southern Studies blog. A few weeks ago, I sent the following proposal  to President McConnell; after a few small edits, I’m happy to share the letter with colleagues and anyone else interested in the College’s efforts to tell a fuller, truer story of the region.

Grant Gilmore

As I explained to President McConnell, I write with significant personal history with these subjects.  My father’s family owned a very successful plantation in Appomattox County, Virginia for over 100 years.  At the dawn of the Civil War, they had 78 enslaved people working for them.  My 3rd great-grandfather, Douglas Hancock Marshall, fought with Company A, 44th Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Confederate States of America. At the end of that horrible war, my 2nd great-grandfather watched the surrender from a tree outside Appomattox Court House that still stands to this day.  My father’s family also lost everything and rightly so, as their wealth was built upon human bondage.

In contrast, some in my mother’s family arrived in Jamaica as indentured servants from India—to replace the labor lost by British sugar plantation owners upon the emancipation of their enslaved African laborers in the 1830s.

The two sides of my family were united in 1969–the year before the College of Charleston became a state institution.  Eventually one of their sons would go on to excavate slave-related archaeology sites in Virginia, Louisiana, and at many islands in the Caribbean.  My PhD was on slavery in a global context.  Now, I work with all my heart and soul for our students, faculty and our great South Carolina citizens.

I have come to know something deeper about the character of Charleston in this new period of change—we have arrived at a great reckoning in our history as a city, and Charleston’s great College is now in a place very rarely exposed.  A door is open for us to be leaders on a truly righteous path.  I am writing to suggest two changes on our campus that would overtly demonstrate who we are.

12 Bull Street, current marker

12 Bull St

In our Researching Historic Properties courses since I began teaching here, we’ve focused on our many beautiful historic campus buildings.  On many of these buildings are signs explaining their historical significance.  They all state that the buildings “were built by so-and-so” as part of a particular period in Charleston’s history.  However, none recognize the fact that enslaved people actually did the building.  Without a doubt, our beautiful Randolph Hall was built by enslaved laborers with bricks made by enslaved children, women and men.  Additionally, African American contractors contributed significantly to construction and reconstruction across our campus during the post-Civil War period. My first suggestion, then, is that we amend our signs across campus to include these people’s contributions to what is now recognized as the most beautiful campus in America.  For example, the sign at our Cameron House at 12 Bull Street, where the Historic Preservation and Community Planning Program proudly resides, could start with something like this:

Built in 1851

by enslaved Africans and others for
Hugh P. Cameron,
a crockery merchant, as his residence.
In 1892, David Bentschner,
a clothing merchant,
purchased the home and changed
the interior to Colonial Revival.
The front gate, carrying his initials,
was added at that time.

In other cases, we have records of individual names of enslaved people who were hired out by their owners to build our campus buildings.  I propose that we recognize them and their forced labor.  I would be honored to organize a campus-wide committee to reword our campus signs so that this history is overtly recognized in the heart of Charleston.  Some may perceive this as controversial—but there is nothing more harmful than ignoring history, as we are witnessing now in our country.

Second, I propose a change at a campus property that I know is dear to all of our hearts.  The Sottile Theatre was and is one of the most beautiful venues in America.  I know that we would love to have it fully restored somehow, someway, soon. I propose a small and inexpensive addition to the entrance, where all theatre-goers can see it: a historic marker explaining that this theatre once had two entrances—one for blacks and one for whites.  That the entrance for one was up some exterior stairs so that they would never have to meet before, during or after a show.  But that today, people of all backgrounds can gather here and enjoy great performances.

I have been mulling over these thoughts for a couple of years now.  Recent events have finally forced my conscience to share them publicly and call for action. I believe most of our faculty and students will support President McConnell in the actions I suggest.

In this time of great misinformation about our shared past, the College of Charleston can be a leader in honestly portraying the contributions of African Americans (both enslaved and free) to our campus’s beauty and grace.

Perseveranti dabitur.

R. Grant Gilmore, III

 September 23, 2017

Dr. Gilmore is Addlestone Chair in Historic Preservation, Director of the BA Program in Historic Preservation and Community Planning, and Co-Director of the MA Program in Community Planning, Policy and Design.



under: C of C Program in Southern Studies, Charleston, Charleston History, Markers

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