College of Charleston Grad Students Reflect on the ASALH Conference

A group of English graduate students from the College of Charleston attended and presented at the recent Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH) conference held in Jacksonville, Florida. This year’s conference focused on Emancipation and its 150th anniversary. The students’ topics focused on African-American freedom through a literary lens, exploring the topic through the works of African-American writers. We briefly interviewed Betsey Poore and Dana Woodcock to learn more about their papers and their experience at the conference.

Jubilee Project: What drew you initially to the conference and why did you want to attend?

Betsey Poore: I wanted to attend the ASALH conference for two reasons. The primary reason to attend this conference was to gain experience presenting conference papers. This is valuable experience for graduate students and I felt that I had an interesting essay that would contribute to the asalh program. Second, I wanted to attend the interesting panels that the conference was hosting. 

Dana Woodcock: The ASALH Annual Conference interested me because it is a interdisciplinary meeting.  Since it is not just a literature conference, attendees are able hear the perspectives of presenters from a variety of disciplines, and I felt like that would help to broaden my own understanding of the context of African American literature.  

JP: Awesome! What were your paper topics?

BP: My paper focused on Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon and the inclusion of the Fates myth within the text. My paper, titled “It’s Fate: The Three Fate’s Myth in Song of Solomon” analyzed the use of the Fates myth specifically represented by Pilate. Further, I discussed how this myth and Pilate help Milkman, the protagonist, discover his identity and heritage. Understanding Pilate as a Fate helped me understand the ending more clearly as a choice to be free by finding a re-birth through one’s history. 

DW: I entitled my paper “The Man, the Myth: the Heroic Structure of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.”  In a nutshell, the paper examines the way that the structure of Douglass’s text mirrors the structure of the classic Greco-Roman epics, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, to cast himself as a classic hero.  In doing so, he strengthens his voice and enables his narrative to combat the dominant pro-slavery voices of the day.

JP: Oh, I really like those methods of exploring the ties between narrative, identity, and freedom. It sounds like that would make for a really interesting panel. Overall, how did you find the conference experience?

BP: The ASALH conference was excellent! It was very well organized, and everyone I talked to was very nice and receptive of my essay. My panel consisted of all graduate students and we were at an early time (8:30) on the last day, but we had an audience  which I felt was very encouraging. Jacksonville was a great location, and I really enjoyed hearing the panels and meeting other people interested in African American life and history. 

DW: My experience at the conference was great!  A few of the panel attendees had questions and constructive suggestions for all the panel members, which was helpful.  I also enjoyed meeting people from other regions and disciplines.  Since this was my first experience with this organization, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I think my time at the conference helped me gain a more nuanced understanding of field of African American studies.  It was definitely a positive experience, and I hope to go back in the coming years.  

A big thanks to Betsey and Dana for answering our questions. For more information on the ASALH and the conference, check out http://www.asalh.org/ 

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“The Rosa Parks Story” Screening TODAY

On Tuesday, October 2nd (TODAY), The College of Charleston will host a screening of The Rosa Parks Story in Maybank Hall, Room 103 from 4:00 – 6:45 pm. The film, starring Angela Bassett and directed by Julie Dash, follows Rosa Parks from childhood to Civil Rights activist. Described as “a biopic that everyone should see,” this film is not to be missed!

After the screening, the film’s director, Julie Dash, will host a Q&A. Julie Dash is currently a visiting professor at College of Charleston. Students, faculty, and community members should not miss this opportunity to discuss Rosa Parks’ impact, the politics of movie-making, and the film making process today with an award-winning director.

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31st Annual Heritage Days Celebration November 7th-10th

The Penn Center is hosting the 31st Annual Heritage Days Celebration from Thursday, November 7th to Sunday, November 10th. The Celebration will feature museum exhibits, musical performances, a heritage parade, food, and more. On Friday from 3-6 pm, there will be a Heritage Symposium on The Civil Rights Movement & Social Change. Tickets are on sale now. heritage SYMPOSIUM FORM

Some Jubilee-inspired Activities for Fall

Summer vacation might be over, but fall breaks are just starting. You might have a day or two off or a long weekend coming up over the next few weeks. Rather than letting the autumn rain keep you at home, why don’t you try out a couple of these events or activities in the spirit of Jubilee?

Vertamae Grosvenor has released three cookbooks focused on African and Gullah-inspired recipes, was a long-tim contributor and host on NPR, and has written for publications such as EssenceThe New York Times, and The Washington Post. Grosvenor uses food to reveal Gullah/Geechee culture and history, a veritable melting pot of culinary anthropology. So have your own Julie & Julia moment: invite a friend over and try some of Grosvenor’s recipes for yourself and learn more about the many Gullah/Geechee traditions!

While you may not expect much from Hollywood (and who could blame you?), you might want to spend an afternoon checking out Steve McQueen’s latest film, Twelve Years A Slave. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender, the film brings to life the true story of Solomon Northup, a freedman who was sold into slavery.  For more information, watch the trailer here. The film does not shy away from the brutally violent nature of slavery and Ejiofor and Fassbender’s intense performances command the screen. This film promises to present a sharp look at slavery in America.

If you cannot wait until October 18th to find out about Solomon Northup or you would like to read his story in his own words, you can check out his memoir, also titled Twelve Years A SlaveConsider starting a book club with your friends and family and discuss Northup’s obstacles, triumphs, and why his story is still so relevant today.

And, finally, start planning for the 31st Annual Heritage Days Celebration on November 7th-9th at St. Helena Island, South Carolina. The celebration will feature food, entertainment, and art that highlight the Gullah/Geechee culture. The Heritage Days Celebration will showcase “African Drummers and Dancers, Gullah Storytellers and Re-Actors, Singers & Artisans, Gullah &  Lowcountry Cuisine, the Gullah Roots Village, Fish Fry, Oyster Roast & the Blues, Artists & Authors Row” and more! Ticket prices range depending on individual events, but all-access passes are also available.

The First Desegregation of the University of South Carolina–October 10th, 1873

Michael David Cohen

USC’s First Desegregation, 140 Years Ago

Last month, the University of South Carolina commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of desegregation at that institution. The three African Americans who enrolled there in September 1963 were the first to do so in the twentieth century. Yet they were not the first ever. This month we reach the anniversary of an earlier desegregation attempt at USC. One hundred forty years ago, on October 10, 1873, a state transformed by the Civil War opened its university to former slaves.

Before the Civil War, South Carolina College, as it was known, educated the South’s white male elite. Planters sent their sons to Columbia to study the classical languages and mathematics, knowledge they deemed essential for the region’s economic and political leaders, and to develop relationships with other young members of their class. White women studied at separate women’s colleges. African Americans, nearly all of them enslaved, received no formal education. State law, in fact, made it a crime to teach a black person to read.

The war interrupted the university’s work. Nearly all students had enlisted in the Confederate military by mid-1863; that summer, the army took over the campus as a hospital. When the school reopened in January 1866, now renamed the University of South Carolina and reorganized into eight schools teaching liberal and professional subjects, most of its students were Confederate veterans. All, as before, were white men.

But change was brewing. Reconstruction soon came to South Carolina. Emancipated and enfranchised blacks, now the majority of the state’s voters, in 1868 elected a Republican and black majority to the state legislature. These lawmakers tried to use their new power to bring true freedom and equality to former slaves. They created the Land Commission, for example, to help the poor purchase land. They tried to ban discrimination in public accommodations, though whites in the state senate managed to defeat that bill. And these fights were not happening in the state capitol. Wartime damage had rendered it unusable. Instead, they were meeting in the USC chapel. White students, fearful of the legislators’ efforts, sat in the gallery watching their state get remade.

Soon the Republican politicians turned their attention to the university around them. The legislature passed and, on March 3, 1869, the governor signed a law banning racial discrimination in admission. That was a key legal step. But it had no immediate result. The trustees and the professors, many of them holdovers from the antebellum college, made no evident effort to recruit African Americans. Four years after the law, not one had enrolled.

In fall 1873, the legislature tried again to spark change: it appointed a black majority to the board of trustees. Now the university began responding. The medical school, created after the war and less mired in antebellum tradition than USC’s other units, acted first. It enrolled Henry Hayne, South Carolina’s African American secretary of state, in its program. Hayne became USC’s first black student. His admission aroused anger both outside and within the university; four professors immediately resigned. But the trustees defended the medical school’s decision—and took it further.

On October 10, 1873, the trustees defended Hayne as “a gentleman of irreproachable character, against whom the said Professors can suggest no objection except . . . his race.” “This board cannot regret,” they continued, “that a spirit so hostile to the welfare of the State, as well as to the dictates of justice and the claims of our common humanity,” had left USC with the four professors’ resignations. The university, they declared, “is the common property of all our citizens without distinction of race.” (Minutes of the Board of Trustees, University of South Carolina Archives)

This declaration, published in the local newspaper, transformed the university. It had, until recently, been a cultural training ground for white slaveholders. Now the trustees wanted it to bring educational opportunities to former slaves.

The trustees understood that, if they wanted blacks to study at the university, an administrative fiat was not enough. People only a dozen years out of slavery had neither the educational background nor the money needed for a traditional college education. The trustees tried to overcome both impediments. To educate ill-prepared students, they created a preparatory school—a high school—within USC. To accommodate poor youths, they eliminated tuition and made dormitory housing free. A new scholarship program even awarded monthly stipends to those students who performed best on a written test; in 1874–75 the state spent over eleven thousand dollars on fifty-seven scholarships.

Reforms in admission were not limited to race. Anxious to train teachers for South Carolina’s expanding primary and secondary schools, the legislature created a normal school—a teacher-training institute—on the Columbia campus. Unlike the rest of the university, the normal school admitted women. For the first time, USC was open to blacks, to the poor, and to women. Its leaders were trying to make the public university truly a university of the people.

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(Students of the State Normal School at the University of South Carolina, c. 1875. None of the students are identified. The man on the right may be Mortimer A. Warren, principal of the normal school—uncertain, but likely. Photograph used with permission of University of South Carolina Archives.)

They succeeded. Many poor black men enrolled, often beginning in the preparatory department before advancing to the university proper. Only seven African Americans entered the classical collegiate program the first year, but the next year the freshman class blossomed to twenty-nine. Black women enrolled in the normal school. Some black alumni later used their education to begin prominent careers. George Murray, for example, became a teacher, author, and congressman. James Durham became a physician and secretary of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

As blacks came, whites left. Few of South Carolina’s white men were willing to study alongside blacks. Those who did stay, clearly a pro-Reconstruction lot, got along well with their new classmates. White and black students did not share rooms, but they did study and socialize together. Meanwhile, another professor left and the trustees fired three more—presumably owing to their attitude toward or treatment of black students. The trustees replaced one of them with Richard Greener, Harvard’s first black graduate and now USC’s first black faculty member. Reconstruction had brought African Americans to the university as trustees, students, and faculty.

Of course, this story did not end happily. A second desegregation was needed at USC because the first one had failed. In 1876–77, aided by massive election fraud, white Democrats won back control of South Carolina’s government. Calling themselves “Redeemers,” these politicians rolled back the Reconstruction reforms. They closed the state university, then reopened it in 1880 as the South Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanics—an all-white institution. Furthermore, because the normal school did not reopen, the new college was also all male. No more women enrolled until 1893; no more blacks, until 1963.

The Redeemers, though, did not undo every Reconstruction innovation. They restored the university’s all-white and all-male student population, but they did not restore tuition. Black Republicans had made USC free to promote the education of former slaves. White Democrats kept it nearly free—students now paid a ten-dollar matriculation fee and the cost of room as well as board—to enable poor whites to attend. Ironically, then, Reconstruction’s legacy at the University of South Carolina was the expansion of access to more white men. Expanding it beyond them would take another civil rights movement.

Michael David Cohen, assistant research professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War and coeditor, with Tom Chaffin, of the newly released Correspondence of James K. Polk, volume 12, January–July 1847.

Follow-Up: Unveiling of Historic Marker Honoring 1969 Hospital Workers’ Strike A Success

On October 1st, the final marker of the Charleston Preservation Society’s project to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Emancipation was unveiled. The marker honors the efforts of Mary Moultrie and her fellow hospital workers in 1969 to receive fair working conditions and adequate pay. After 113 days, the strike came to a close with both sides reaching a compromise. And while great strides have been made, Moultrie reminded the audience at the ceremony that further improvements still need to be made for workers’ rights.

The event received a fair amount of attention with several news sources covering the event:

“Passages” Art Show and Sale Celebrates Emancipation

The Charleston City Paper covered the Passages Art Show and Sale hosted by the Emanuel AME Church located on Calhoun Street. The article (which can be found here) is especially interesting because while it celebrates the show commemorating the 150th anniversary of Emancipation, it also takes note of how far we still need to go to achieve true equality. The article includes the following incredible quote by Cookie Washington, a local Charleston artist who organized this showing:

“The reason why I thought of this was I was down in the Market one day — this was after the City of Charleston said, ‘No, we’re not going to do a big thing for the anniversary of the Emancipation’ — and I thought, there’s really no place for black art in this town. It was raining and those black basket ladies were sitting on folding chairs almost out in the street, weaving their baskets. And I’m like, this is an amazing, 400-year old beautiful craft … it’s demeaning. We still don’t honor the people who built this city. Everywhere you look, African Americans built this city.”

You can visit the exhibit from October 4th-6th for free at the Emanuel AME Church before it finds its permanent home at the Passages Art Gallery next spring.

Link

In 1948, Esau Jenkins founded the Progressive Club to encourage political education and voting registration as a means of uplifting the Charleston African-American community. Because of low funds, at first Jenkins had to host citizenship classes in his VW bus, driving people to and from their places of work in Charleston. Soon, however, Jenkins’s educational movement picked up speed and garnered an increasing amount of support. In 1957, Jenkins–along with Septima Clark and Bernice Robin–founded the first Citizenship School as a means of accomplishing the goals of the Progressive Club. Incredibly influential (similar schools developed throughout the southeast using the Citizenship School as their model), the school continued to grow and help its students develop the educational and political skill-sets to effect change through voting and political activism.

Courtesy of the Avery Research Center

On September 8, 2013, the Preservation Society of Charleston unveiled a historic marker on Johns Island honoring the work Esau Jenkins and the Progressive Club did for the Civil Rights movement. Bill Saunders, a Civil Rights activist who worked with Jenkins, spoke at the event.

Queen Quet of the Gullah/Geechee Nation attended the event as well and has documented the unveiling on the Gullah/Geechee blog which can be found here). The Gullah/Geechee Nation is a “nation within a nation” representing the rights of Gullah people and preserving and promoting the unique Gullah culture here in the Lowcountry.  The Nation corresponds with the federally declared Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and extends more or less from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida. Queen Quet’s report and the video documenting the unveiling of the marker can be found below.

1969 Hospital Workers’ Strike Marker to be Unveiled TODAY

Today at 3:00 p.m. at the MUSC Basic Science Building, a marker honoring the efforts of Mary Moultrie and the 1969 Hospital Workers’ Strike will be unveiled. The Preservation Society of Charleston has unveiled several markers this year commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement; this marker will be the last one in the current project.

Courtesy of the Avery Research Center

The unveiling is free and open to the public and will feature special guest, Mary Moultrie. Mary Moultrie, a nurse’s aide at MUSC in 1968, organized the strike to gain equal pay and fairer working conditions for black nurses. Due to institutionalized prejudice, black nurses were forced to work in unfair environments: they faced daily harassment, they were refused job titles that would grant them higher (and fairer) pay, and they were not allowed to unionize. Mary Moultrie organized 400 hospital employees–mostly black women working below minimum wage–to strike on June 18th, 1969. The strike lasted for 113 days and gained the attention of national leaders such as Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, and Ralph Abernathy.

The protest was another success for non-violent activism. MUSC re-hired all the strikers and instituted official grievance procedures for workers.

In 2008, Stephen Colbert and Civil Rights activist, Andrew Young, discussed the 1969 Hospital Workers’ Strike. Colbert’s father, James Colbert, was Vice President of Academic Affairs at MUSC at the time. Video can be found via the link.