College of Charleston Acknowledges its Past with the Center for the Study of Slavery

Feb 6, 2020

Randolph Hall at the College of Charleston as the school prepares to celebrate its 250th birthday
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

As the College of Charleston celebrates its 250th birthday, at its center is Randolph Hall.  Built in 1820, students still gather here. 

Less prominent, an organization that tries to help the school comes to terms with  its past, the Center for the Study of Slavery.

"You are sitting in the office of the center right now," says Dr. Bernard Powers.  He founded the center two years ago after retiring from the history department.

The Center for the Study of Slavery is part of a consortium of more than 40 universities that studies the impact of slavery on schools and communities.

"When you think of slavery, you don't automatically think of universities," says Powers.

But the professor emeritus says universities were often the think tanks that justified and rationalized slavery.  Part of the College of Charleston was built by slaves, including Randolph Hall and the President's House.

Powers points to the buildings as we take a stroll.  The slave-built structures have no signage.  But Powers believes they should.

"So that really the buildings will be able to speak more to our students and the public far more than they do now," he explains.

He says the center would like to create a heritage tour through campus; one that also speaks to the struggles of African Americans.  They were long barred from the country's oldest municipal college.

"It really begins as far as I know in the 1940s," says Powers.

During the double V campaign, African Americans demanded equal right in exchange for their sacrifices during World War II.  Students from Charleston's first black public high school, the Avery Normal Institute, began applying to the College of Charleston.  Powers says former State Representative Lucille Whipper was among them.

"I can tell you, their requests were simply ignored," says Powers.

He says the school even went private to avoid integration.

"Think about it.  People were paying taxes to fund a school that they were unable to attend," says Powers.

Black students were eventually allowed to enroll in 1967.  In 1972, Lucille Whipper became the school's first black administrator.  She helped her old Avery high school become a research center for African American history, and later merge with the College of Charleston.

While there have been strides, Powers says there are still racial disparities on campus, in the city and across the nation.

"Virtually any and every racial disparity that exists today would have its origins in the system of slavery," he says.

The Center for the Study of Slavery seeks to repair those disparities.  But how, when many can't see the role of slavery.  Consider the Charleston City Council's divided vote two years ago, before passing a resolution apologizing for slavery. 

He argues the city did need to apologize because it profited from human bondage with special taxes and imported more Africans than any other North American city. 

Powers says we all need to know our shared history.

The new International African American Museum will be built at the very site nearly half of all Africans were brought to this nation, Gadsden's Wharf.  Powers is the lead historian for the museum and the interim CEO.

"I was over at the building site about a week ago.  I could hear the construction.  I was music to my ears."

The museum is expected to open at the end of 2021. 

As for the Center for the Study of Slavery, perhaps it needs no walls.  At its heart are people, promoting racial healing through a better understanding of history.