Remarks Delivered on the Occasion of the Unveiling of Historic Marker Commemorating the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention

Posted on March 15, 2018

Remarks Delivered on the Occasion of the Unveiling of Historic Marker Commemorating the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention

2:30 pm, March 16th, 2018
Corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, Charleston, South Carolina

Ehren Foley, historian with the National Register of Historic Places Program
I am extremely gratified to be here today and to remember the events that occurred on this spot 150 years ago. I am not sure if this marks the end of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War that began here in Charleston some eight years ago, or if it marks the beginning of a new public memory of Reconstruction, one that will find voice at this conference and at the newly established Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort. Maybe a bit of both.

It is fitting that we meet here in Charleston, not only because this is where the convention met, but also because this is a city with a long tradition of remembering its past. We look around the city and we are confronted constantly with stories about the past. Or, at least, certain stories about the past, because Charleston also has a long history of forgetting, and the stories left untold are at least as abundant as the ones that are. It would be untrue, however, to say that the story of Reconstruction has simply been forgotten these past 150 years. For much of that time white South Carolinians remembered Reconstruction too well, or, at least, a certain narrative about that period, and used that story as a justification for racial segregation and the disenfranchisement of more than half of the state’s population. There was no room in that memory to celebrate the Constitution of 1868 or the promise that it held for racial and social progress.

Today we take one step to insert that story into Charleston’s public memory. But we fool ourselves if we think that we exist outside of history or that our monuments can speak for all-time any more so than can the monuments of past generations. If we had less hubris perhaps we would make our monuments of lesser stock than granite or aluminum, so that they would fade slowly from the landscape, as we all are destined to do, and leave future generations less encumbered by our words, if not our actions. Absent that, we can at least do our best to be honest and act as good stewards of our past, because we know, Charleston knows, better than most places, the power of the past to encumber; to spur division, hatred, and violence. As we stand in the shadow of the federal courthouse where Dylann Roof was recently convicted of the murder of nine souls, we remember the power of bad history to produce evil outcomes.

But the past can empower, as well as encumber. It can remind us that, 150 years ago, Black men across South Carolina, nearly all of them former slaves, cast ballots for the first time. That 150 years ago, those newly enfranchised voters elected a group of delegates, the majority of them Black, who met on this spot to rewrite the state’s fundamental law. That 150 years ago, South Carolina embarked on an experiment in biracial democracy that held out the promise of civil equality and access to education for all, regardless of race.

There is promise in that story. If so much progress was possible 150 years ago, then we can know that progress is also possible in our time. But we are also reminded that after 1868 came 1895; that history is not linear; that revolutions can go backwards; and that the road towards progress is a long and trying one. But if Charleston can make room in its public memory to include a celebration of the Constitution of 1868, then I will take that as a small measure of progress for this day. Thank you.


Dr. Bruce Baker, history lecturer at Newcastle University
Constitutional conventions are an important part of democracy. They embody the basic idea that, as Thomas Rainsborough said in 1647 during the English Civil War, “every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.” That is exactly what a constitutional convention does: it allows those who are going to live under a government to take part in shaping the basic principles of that government.

South Carolina has had a number of constitutions. Those of you who have lived in South Carolina or followed South Carolina politics for some time will not be surprised to learn that it has not been a steady march of progress towards ever greater freedom. The Provincial Congress of South Carolina adopted the state’s first constitution in 1776 but did not submit it to the people for ratification. While the 1776 constitution had allowed all men who owned land to vote, the 1778 constitution that replaced it required that they own at least fifty acres of land. Another constitution was adopted in 1790, and that one stayed in place until South Carolina left the United States in 1860 and adopted a new constitution to fit in with its new place within the so-called Confederate States of America on April 8, 1861. After four years of education about the difficulties of setting up a new nation courtesy of the United States army and navy, and those within South Carolina who had previously been enslaved and those who continued to consider themselves citizens of the United States, there was a need for a new constitution. President Andrew Johnson wanted to bring the states of the so-called Confederacy back into normal relations with the United States government and to end the war powers which had the capacity to effect radical changes in the South, so he appointed provisional governors. A new state constitution was written in 1865 to acknowledge the end of slavery, but it did little to change the aristocratic nature of South Carolina’s government, and its provisions tried to ensure that as little as possible changed in the lives of black South Carolinians.

All this changed after the Radical Republicans gained a huge majority in the Congressional elections of 1866. In March 1867, the Reconstruction Acts were passed, requiring southern states to create new constitutions in order to be readmitted to Congress. What was different this time was that former Confederates were disfranchised and the constitution had to be written by “a convention of delegates elected by the male citizens of said State, twenty-one years old and upward, of whatever race, color, or previous condition.” The election for the South Carolina constitutional convention was held on November 19 and 20, 1867. For the first time in South Carolina’s history, black men voted in an election. Most whites registered to vote but then stayed away from the polls, trying to defeat the constitution by making sure that fewer than 50% of the registered voters participated in the election. But over 90% of black men who were registered voted, and the convention was held from January 14 to March 17, 1868. 49 of the delegates were white, with two thirds of those being originally from the South. The remaining 72 delegates were African American, and over half of them had been enslaved at the beginning of the war. It was by a very long shot the most democratic political body ever assembled in South Carolina, though it would be another fifty years before women were allowed to vote.

The Constitution that they wrote created modern South Carolina. It gave women much greater freedom than ever before by being able to control their own wealth and to get divorced. It created a public school system that was open to all students, whatever their race. It shored up support of the university and mandated the creation of a normal school for educating teachers and an agricultural college for education farmers and mechanics. It provided support for citizens who were blind or deaf or mentally ill. No one could be imprisoned for being in debt, and people could hold public office whether or not they owned property.


Dr. Bernard Powers, professor of history at the College of Charleston

William Faulkner’s now famous quote : “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” has special application in Charleston.  This is a city where visitors and residents constantly, usually effortlessly and even thoughtlessly move between past and present routinely.  Sometimes we’ll step away from our routines and this applies particularly to people such as yourselves, and in moments of reflection we will take note of some of the more striking places where this connection between past and present appears with poignancy.  For example right here we stand proximate to St. Michael’s Church, an iconic  building in the Charleston landscape.  But it is a building partially constructed by slave brick layers.  One of the men who rang the bells here for decades, Washington McLean Gadsden, began doing so as a slave.  I love to hear the bells of St. Michaels but in the antebellum years, when they rang in late evening those bells sounded the curfew for slaves to be off the streets.  Knowing that history doesn’t diminish the music’s beauty; it gives the listener even greater appreciation for it.  It is an argument for telling the whole story.

There are special places in this city that allow you to hear and feel things that you cannot in other places.  Every year in the fall we have a MOJA Festival in Charleston which celebrates the African Arts of the Western Hemisphere.   One of the special locations is behind the Customs House on East Bay Street.

During MOJA some of the celebrations occur back there and when the musicians begin to play the conga drums and you look toward the water and that rhythm begins to touch you and you begin to feel something akin to the thrill the young W. E. B. DuBois felt when he first heard the spirituals.  And you recognize the sound and the feeling as the siren call of the African ancestors who still long for recognition, veneration and a proper place.

As you move about the city to other places and you stop, look and listen; you will readily observe that something is missing.  You’ll maybe experience not voices but deafening silences from other parts of  Charleston’s landscape and those silences must be filled.   Fortunately I can say that substance has replaced some of the absences.  I can remember in the mid-1970s taking house tours in the city where if they were referred to at all, slaves were typically called servants and out at Fort Sumter you learned more about tariffs as the cause of the Civil War than about slavery.  Fortunately, these things have changed dramatically over the decades.  In recent years a collectivity of public institutions, individuals, community groups, preservation oriented organizations and elements in the city government itself, have mounted an effort to give voice to those silences, to tell a more comprehensive story about Charleston’s history.  There are various markers in the historic district identifying important sites from the slave trade, to the Civil War to the civil rights era.  The city now runs the Old Slave Mart Museum and is an important force behind the International African American Museum.  It hasn’t been easy; there have been many discouraging moments, even years.  It took a broad coalition of people almost 20 years of protracted effort to finally get the Denmark Vesey Monument erected at Hampton Park, a place where over 200 Union soldiers were once buried.   The CLAW Program has always been in the avant garde of these efforts providing support and encouragement.  Now the conference “Freedoms Gained and Lost” devoted to Reconstruction continues in that same vein to address one of the city’s most deafening and important silences.   The marker will permanently recognize the era’s bold experiment in interracial democracy and let it encourage us to continue the struggle to achieve its highest ideals and that “new birth of freedom” for which so many lived and died.


Michael Boulware Moore, president of the International African American Museum
Robert Smalls participated in the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868, most notably, by offering legislation that created here in SC the first, free, compulsory, statewide public school system in America. It is legislation that, to this day, stands as the prevailing law. There are many stories passed down through the generations of our family that speak to Robert’s fundamental commitment to education. It is said that it pained him deeply that he was legally prevented from learning to read and write as a youngster. After he won his freedom, one of the very first things he did with his reward money was to buy the services of two tutors who taught him: one, first thing in the morning and then another when he returned home in the evening. Beyond that, he ensured that his children were also exposed to the best education available. In fact, my great grandmother, Elizabeth, was sent all the way from her home in Beaufort, SC to The Allen School in West Newton, Massachusetts as a young girl in the early 1870’s in search of the best education available to her. In an event that, incredibly, people are still talking about, on July 4, 1872 – Elizabeth read the Declaration of Independence in the public square in Beaufort. 2,000 freedmen – it is said – were in awe of this little girl and, at that moment, understood the power of education. At a time when most could not read, and when it was exceedingly rare for a young girl to be able to do so, Elizabeth read that document with pristine diction and clarity – an attribute that she became known for throughout her life. This reading was a testament to the focus on education that has been in my family for generations, and continues to this day. After Robert – who was the first in our family able to access education of any kind, all of my parents and grandparents were educators who earned PhD’s – three from Ivy League institutions, and my great grandfather – Samuel Jones Bampfield from Charleston – earned a law degree from Lincoln University in 1872. Perhaps the smartest of them all was my maternal grandmother who did so well throughout her college career that she was exempted from taking finals her last year. DNA testing tells us that we are descended from Mende people in Sierra Leone. They are known to have a focus on education. Who knows if what drove Robert and what has become a part of our family to this day is a literal part of our DNA – flowing through our veins from our days in Africa but Robert certainly activated that predilection at the earliest opportunity. The Constitutional Convention of 1868 was a time when Robert Smalls gave voice to his aspirations around education – desperately wanting to instill in others what he aspired to himself. At a time when formerly enslaved people were coming out of the cocoon of slavery, 1868 was an early time when the laws – at least for a while – provided a more even societal platform. Robert Smalls had an indelible hand in that effort.

Review: Lang on Gleeson and Lewis, ‘The Civil War as Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War’

Posted on February 7, 2018

David T. Gleeson, Simon Lewis, eds. The Civil War as Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War. The Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World Series. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. viii + 308 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61117-325-3.

Reviewed by Andrew Lang (Mississippi State University)
Published on H-War (January, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

The World of the American Civil War

The previous two decades have showcased a remarkable revolution in American historiography. No longer can scholars look exclusively at the national past within the protective and isolated confines of the United States’ seemingly secure borders. While rich texts continue to focus on the national experience, almost all historians today accept that the United States never evolved independent of its connection to the broader world. Indeed, as Thomas Bender reminded us in 2006, the United States lived—and lives—as “a nation among nations” (A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History [2006]). By linking American history to its hemispheric, Atlantic, and international pasts, the literature has uncovered extraordinary new insights into the studies of place and nation, slavery and abolition, revolution and restoration. Long burdened by an exceptionalist bent to its historical narrative—the notion that the United States had evaded the corrupting evolutionary tendencies of the Old World, charting altogether a distinct path of history—the transnational turn in American historiography has disrupted a sense of uniqueness to the national story.

Fewer places in the literature have experienced this historiographical transformation more than the field of Civil War studies. Long a product of exceptionalist writing, the United States’ signal mid-nineteenth-century conflict was often written as humanity’s most profound shift from premodernism immediately into the dawn of modernity. Such an unprecedented revolution, this older scholarship argued, irrevocably realigned the citizenry’s relation to the state, brandished a kind of total war that foreshadowed the terrible conflicts of the twentieth century, and centralized the United States altogether. This exceptionalist veil suggested that no other civil conflict had been as bloody, had been as revolutionary, or had been as sweeping in scope as the United States’ own internal struggle. Indeed, this was our war, just as American history was our past.

The transnational turn fundamentally altered how historians considered the American Civil War. A new wave of literature now places the domestic conditions of the conflict—why it came, how it was waged, and what it meant—alongside the United States’ place in an Atlantic world embroiled in similar disputes over the meanings of liberty, democracy, and republicanism. Myriad nations in both the Old and New Worlds had already experienced the impossible problems of democratic-republicanism’s fate, slavery’s destiny, emancipation’s promise, and the destructive power of modern industrialized war. If anything, the United States came late to a party long underway.

And that is where David T. Gleeson and Simon Lewis’s fabulous anthology comes into focus. Functioning at once as a tight synthesis of the transnational premise and as a departure point for new areas of study, the volume of thirteen wholly unique essays unveils the interpretative power of framing the American Civil War within its global context. The book’s overriding purpose is to understand the war transnationally, but the editors and authors are careful to recognize the multifaceted ways in which a transnational history of a national event can look. The volume never strips away the commanding influence of the nation-state. In fact, the various authors acknowledge that transnational history is not necessarily world history. American history and the Civil War in particular were contingent on relations to the world, the international exchange of ideas, the efforts to demonstrate behavior acceptable to a global audience, and even fears of the world impinging onto the nation itself. The nation-state is very much alive in this book. But it, like all intricate and evolving systems, was subject to complex, complementary, and contradictory influences both from within and without its immediate orbit. What we therefore see is an event that is simultaneously domestic and global. The Civil War, the authors suggest, was not exclusively a local moment, nor was it an amorphous global occurrence. The world was connected intimately to matters in the United States, just as the United States erupted in war due to conditions nurtured by global dynamics.

The book unfolds as a broad series of meditations on the war’s causes, its many interested parties, its conduct, and its consequences and memory. Edward B. Rugemer and Matthew Karp open the anthology, engaging the complicated antebellum connections that American abolitionists and slaveholders alike forged with the Atlantic world. Both authors conclude that the delicate evolution from slavery to freedom in the United States and in the Western Hemisphere played central roles in the formation of American identities on the eve of secession. Indeed, the United States’ mid-century emergence as one of the world’s few remaining slave societies—and unquestionably its largest—directly influenced how the 1850s developed at home, how slaveholders viewed themselves in relation to the nation-state, how American slavery related to a world increasingly hostile to human bondage, and how a post-emancipation United States differed dramatically from other former slave societies.

In dealing with the war itself, Hugh Dubrulle, James M. McPherson, David T. Gleeson, Alexander Noonan, and Niels Eichhorn all shatter the simple notion that “northerners” and “southerners”—esoteric identifiers that now carry such little meaning—cared most about the course and meaning of the conflict. Each author instead agrees that the world watched this war carefully, that diplomacy was shaped by contingencies forged on the field of battle, that Americans themselves practiced war in ways to legitimize their belligerency and to seek international approval, and that mid-century nationalism underwent a crisis over its very sources. One of the anthology’s profound leitmotifs is the question of nationalism itself, its ingredients, and its meaning. The American Civil War was one of many nineteenth-century conflicts waged as a terrible, enduring struggle about nationalism as a mystical idea or as the ethnic makeup of a nation’s people. Were all humans truly created equal, as European and Unionist liberals would have it, endowed with the capacity of democratic self-determination? Or, were nations conceived in the image of the Confederacy, a state built on racial and ethnic hierarchies that promised to secure liberty only for those of privileged classes? These various essays thus reveal that the fate not only of the United States but also of the Atlantic world hinged on answers to these questions. The Civil War was not the first nor the last conflict imbued with these difficult dilemmas. But by the 1860s, the authors conclude, it was among the most recent to take up the same questions that had plagued the world in the long wake of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions.

The conduct of the war itself depended on similar questions. Burdened with self-imposed exceptionalist identities, Unionists and Confederates worried whether their conflict would deteriorate into what Abraham Lincoln called a “remorseless revolutionary struggle.” A pair of essays by Aaron Sheehan-Dean and Jane E. Schultz demolish any argument favoring the old Civil War-as-total war thesis. As Sheehan-Dean explains, each belligerent embraced the limiting tendencies and careful restraints of international law in shaping policies of retaliation, surrender, and prisoner exchange. Both nations avoided the most brutal passions and truly merciless conduct that so often scar societies engaged in civil war. Schultz’s treatment of British nurse Florence Nightingale, whose efforts during the Crimean War transformed nursing into a formal profession, demonstrates that both Unionist and Confederate women envisioned themselves in roles similar to the English icon. Understanding wartime nursing to be a source of virtue and humanitarianism, but also as a gateway into women’s public professionalization, American nurses understood their wartime place as a testing ground for a new postwar world.

The volume concludes with a series of essays by Aaron W. Marrs, Christopher Wilkins, Lesley Marx, and a sizeable roundtable, which all deal with the problem of the war’s aftermath and historical memory. Similar to the war’s significant transnational revision, the postwar period is also undergoing profound reevaluations. The closing essays discourage, some more explicitly than others, the use of “Reconstruction” when labeling events in the wake of Appomattox. “Reconstruction” seems to impose a limiting quality to the boundless events that took place both in and outside of the United States, as the nation, hemisphere, and world grappled with the stunning changes wrought by Union victory and American emancipation. From uncertain diplomatic relations, to American efforts to annex Santo Domingo, and even to the powerful international processes of remembering and forgetting forged on the silver screen by Gone with the Wind (1939), each essay instructs that because it was an international event, the American Civil War created more uncertainties and fostered bolder questions than those that it answered definitively.

The anthology not only encompasses an expansive temporal scope but also touches on a prodigious array of subjects. Both of these qualities make the book truly worthwhile. In fewer than three hundred pages of text, more than thirteen authors explore their subjects with painstaking precision and careful comprehension. Each essay, written with brevity and confidence, models the finest type of historical writing. The proof is in the way the book is conceived and executed. There is little doubt that each of these essays will either revise existing historiographical debates or spawn new areas of inquiry. That is the mark of a fine anthology, and this one succeeds admirably.

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Series: “When the War Is Over: Memory, Division, and Healing”

Posted on January 22, 2018

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
-William Blake, “A Poison Tree”

“When the War is Over”: A series of public events dedicated to thinking about building Community After Periods of Slavery, Persecution, Genocide, or War.

In much the same way that trauma in an individual’s past causes psychological damage, communities that have experienced traumatic violence also bear psychological scars from that experience. Psychiatrists have for many years asserted the value of the “talking cure,” arguing that healing comes from addressing, not suppressing, the memory of the traumatic event. In the US military, for example, treatment of PTSD is generally informed by the work of psychiatrist Judith Herman, author of the now-classic 1992 study Trauma and Recovery. In the cases of traumatized communities, the tendency in recent years has also been to attempt “talking cures”; numerous countries have opted to establish truth commissions as a way to stabilize post-conflict situations. Hoping to avoid the potentially endless cycle of tit-for-tat vengeful “justice,” countries as diverse as Chile, Sierra Leone, and South Africa have used truth commissions to deal with their violent pasts not by repressing memories but by bringing them into the open.

Despite the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, the scars of slavery and of institutionalized racism in the United States are still present, manifesting themselves in a variety of ways, including continued systemic discrimination as well as individual acts of violence. In the latter case, the mass murder of nine of our fellow citizens while at prayer in the Mother Emanuel Church in June 2015 reminded us all that Charleston, our beautiful home city, is also a site of trauma, suffering from the suppressed memories of native genocide, two centuries of racialized slavery, and a century of legalized racial discrimination. Although contemporary historians have put the story of these traumas into print, the visible, material landscape still suppresses the trauma: public memorials and the demographics of urban space still render Native American and African American experience virtually invisible.

Elsewhere in the world, communities that have experienced similar trauma and racial, ethnic, or sectarian division have begun to address the effect of statues, monuments, and memorials honoring eminent historical figures whose ideologies and policies are out of step with contemporary assertions of universal human rights. In perpetuating a positive memory of leaders like Cecil Rhodes, for example, these memorials enshrine and set in stone attitudes we now consider to be anathema. Campaigns to remove statues honoring Rhodes from places of honor in South Africa and in his native England have led to wider campaigns for social justice, including equal access to education for all.

In the US, the last year has seen a wave of local initiatives to remove or modify statues and memorials honoring Civil War generals and politicians, as well as efforts to rename buildings named in honor of post-War politicians who advocated for and/or profited from racial segregation. These initiatives have in turn spawned renewed violence, notably in Charlottesville, Virginia last August. Here in Charleston, confusion still reigns over how to handle the memory of John C. Calhoun, whose statue towers above the city in Marion Square.

As an academic institution, dedicated to the notion that wisdom itself is liberty, we at the College of Charleston feel called upon to use our expertise in the humanities and social sciences to provide an intellectual framework to negotiate these contentious issues. “When the War Is Over:  Memory, Division, and Healing” thus brings together in a loosely unified series, a collection of public lectures and forums that address historical trauma and the ways in which sites that have experienced such trauma have moved, or might move towards building sustainable, peaceful community. In broadening the discussion from Charleston and the US to include the Northern Irish “Troubles” and the Holocaust, the series aims to provide a discursive context within which a fundamental commitment to human rights governs policy decisions that lead toward peaceable coexistence, the eradication of racism and other forms of discrimination, and the prevention of genocide.

We warmly invite the public to attend these events as we strive to move toward a better, more inclusive understanding of our common but divided history. A full list of the events will be available at

Hand painted copy B of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, 1794 currently held at the British Museum.


Congratulations to Dr. Vernon Burton!

Posted on October 31, 2017

Congratulations to Dr. Vernon Burton for being honored at The Governor’s Awards in the Humanities ceremony on October 19, 2017 at Hilton Columbia Center. Dr. Burton was one of four recipients at this year’s awards luncheon along with The Auntie Karen Foundation (Karen Alexander), The Hon. Betty Jo Rhea, and Dr. Dixie Goswami.
Now celebrating its 26th anniversary, the Governor’s Awards in the Humanities recognize outstanding achievement in humanities research, teaching, and scholarship; institutional and individual participation in helping communities in South Carolina better understand our cultural heritage or ideas and issues related to the humanities; excellence defining South Carolina’s cultural life to the national or world; and exemplary support for public humanities programs.
Dr. Burton gave a power acceptance speech that we believe is worth posting for all to read…
I am honored and humbled, especially since at this same time our friend Dixie Goswami, a hero to both Georganne and me, receives this award. I am grateful that my daughters took time off from busy lives, and brought grandchildren, to share this day.
It is an exciting time to be a historian in S.C. I grew up in the farming- textile community of Ninety Six. In 1969, I left for graduate school at Princeton, bracketed by two brief stints in the Army. I then spent 34 years at the University of Illinois researching and teaching the American South. I never wanted to leave home and my beloved mother, and when I met Georganne I told her I was only temporarily in Illinois until I could get back to South Carolina. One of the books I wrote, The Age of Lincoln, allowed me to retire and return home. Things have certainly changed dramatically in SC since 1969, and people here no longer care much for Lincoln, although I argue that he was not only the greatest president, but the greatest theologian of the 19th century, and a great southerner. The culture wars continue their cruel effect on democracy.
At least twice, our state has been at the forefront of United States history. In 1860, we led the nation in the wrong direction into civil war. Every elementary student knows the story, or at least a version of it; and on courthouse squares, and on the state house grounds, we celebrate the defeated Confederacy. Yet, South Carolina also led the nation during the Civil Rights Movement. Brown v. Board, which ended segregation, began in the 1940s when an extraordinary group of African American families in rural Clarendon County demanded a decent education for their children. Few know of these courageous heroes or their leader Rev. Joseph DeLaine, or their few white allies, who made our state and nation a more democratic and inclusive one. No monuments celebrate them nor their hard-fought victory.
South Carolina again has the opportunity to lead the nation in the right direction and to be on the right side of history. In the aftermath of the June 17, 2015 terrible tragedy, the Mother Emanuel Church massacre, I was interviewed by NPR and was not optimistic that the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia would be removed from the state house grounds. South Carolinians, however, illustrated the best of our shared culture, and consistent with their faith, the families of the victims of Mother Emanuel forgave the murderer Dylan Roof, and their acts of grace changed the debate. The word “grace” permeates the legislative debates on the flag. I believe that is why white legislators voted to furl the flag, some understanding for the first time what the Confederate flag symbolized to African Americans; and why it was so appropriate that President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service.
People do not learn their history from the books historians write (or my grandchildren would have a larger college fund). We learn our history from what our communities tell us is important, by what they memorialize and to whom they erect statues
Most important for learning is our state house grounds, and today every single monument or statue to a named individual recognizes only white supporters of slavery, segregation, or white supremacy. I acknowledge a monument to African American denizens (who until 1930 comprised the majority of South Carolina’s population), but no monument honors an African American individual or individual’s achievements. We can rectify this situation and help end, or at least moderate the worst of the culture wars by erecting statues and celebrating South Carolinians who went against the grain and fought against white supremacy and for justice and “grace.” Hosts of African American and white South Carolinians fought the good fight and can be role models for generations to come. We must balance our public history presentations.
Growing up in Ninety Six, I learned from a marker commemorating Congressman Preston Brooks’ 1856 caning of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate Chamber. That marker signified that the way to be celebrated was to brutally beat those with whom you disagree. (It is no wonder we were state champs in football!) There was another local hero, but because of segregation, I never heard of the long-time president of Morehouse College, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, until I met him during religious emphasis week my senior year at Furman. Today, that great theologian, spiritual god-father of the Civil Rights Movement, and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated and recognized in Ninety Six, and I encourage you to visit the Benjamin E. Mays Historical Site in Greenwood where a statue will be dedicated to Dr. Mays Nov. 4. It is an excellent example of how we can do better, how a community can recognize an apostle, advocate, and example of peace and “grace,” an alternative role model for all youth, black and white.Thank you.


Posted on October 6, 2017



In preparation for a volume of essays to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the “Denmark Vesey Conspiracy” of 1822, the Carolina Lowcountry in the Atlantic World Program (CLAW) at the College of Charleston will hold a small conference on enslaved and free black anti-slavery, February 8-10, 2019.

Keynote speakers will include Bernie Powers (author of Black Charlestonians) and Michael Moore (executive director of the International African American Museum). Other featured participants include Manisha Sinha, Douglas Egerton, Samuel Ntewusu, and Rebecca Shumway.

Known to scholars mainly as a conspiracy of Carolina slaves, the “Denmark Vesey Conspiracy” also ensnared free black people and should be treated as a part of the broader black anti-slavery movement. Some of the rebels were aware of the Missouri Compromise debates over slavery. They compared Carolina whites to those national leaders who they thought wanted to end slavery. Some of the rebels were aware of the Sierra Leone colony of freed slaves and probably had known free and enslaved people who emigrated there in 1821. Some were aware of revolutionary Haiti. Some were born in Africa. In the truest sense, there were African, American, and Atlantic dimensions to the 1822 rebels’ organizing.

We welcome proposals seeking to understand black anti-slavery in the wider Atlantic world, including but not limited to Africa, the Caribbean, and Carolina. Proposals may include but are not limited to:

Rebellions in Africa
Archives of rebellion
Women in rebellions
Information networks
Religion and spirituality
Empire and colonization
The archive of antislavery
African resistance strategies
Cultural memory of rebellion
Gender/sexuality and rebellion
Rebellions & the Middle Passage
Criminalization of antislavery activity
Legacies of the repression of rebellions
Rebellions against the internal slave trade
Resistance and the internal (U.S.) slave trade
Haiti and black anti-slavery in the Atlantic World
Black activists and the politics of resistance to slavery
Black antislavery and subsequent social movements (such as #BLM)…

Charleston is an apt setting for these discussions. Nearby to Stono Creek, the namesake of one of the most significant slave rebellions in American history, Charleston was also a major entrepot for enslaved people trafficked from elsewhere in the Atlantic world. The College of Charleston was founded shortly before Vesey’s birth, and sits in the midst of the neighborhoods in which the uprising planners lived and worked. Tours will be organized as part of the conference.

To propose a paper, send a CV and a 250 word abstract to James O’Neil Spady ( by February 28, 2018. Authors of accepted proposals will be asked to submit their completed essays by January 8, 2019. The complete essays will be distributed to conference attendees in advance, workshopped during sessions, and considered for a proposed volume marking the 200th anniversary of the Vesey Conspiracy in 2022.

Contact Info:
James O’Neil Spady, Assoc. Prof. of American History, Soka University of America

2018 Conference “Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reinterpreting Reconstruction in the Atlantic World”

Posted on June 21, 2017

Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reinterpreting Reconstruction in the Atlantic World

 Call For Papers

In honor of the 150th Anniversary of South Carolina’s 1868 Constitutional Convention, South Carolina’s biracial Constitutional Convention that fundamentally changed the state by ushering in legal reforms, provided for public education, expanded the franchise, and promised numerous other rights, the College of Charleston will be hosting a conference entitled “Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reinterpreting Reconstruction in the Atlantic World.” In the decades following the 1868 conventions some of those rights guaranteed on paper by the convention would not always be protected or even remembered.

In partnership with various local, national, and international cultural heritage organizations, academic institutions, and historic sites, the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World Program (CLAW), invite proposals for panels, and individual papers about the larger topic of gaining and losing freedoms. The conference will be held March 16th-17th, 2018.

Topics might include (but are not limited to) women’s rights; reinterpreting the Reconstruction Acts; enfranchisement and disfranchisement; access to education; civil rights activism;; the impact on people of African Descent; the ending of slavery in the Atlantic World; the meaning of emancipation; the modern legal principles Reconstruction created; Reconstruction from an international perspective; the lasting social and cultural legacies from Reconstruction; and the historical memory of the era, especially as manifested in public sites, literature, music, performance, film, and visual art. Today, Reconstruction is often seen as both a “Splendid Failure” and the foundation of the modern Civil Rights movement. As such organizers intend for proposals to take an expansive definition to Freedom, Reconstruction, and Atlantic World when considering proposals. In light of CLAW’s transnational focus we are particularly interested in papers that take a transnational or comparative approach, thinking about lessons to be learned from US Reconstruction in comparable post-conflict settlements.

Special Focus:

Mindful of the United Nations declaration of 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent, and the conference location in Charleston, South Carolina, the planners particularly encourage proposals relevant to the history of Reconstruction’s race and class legacies in Charleston and historically interconnected international sites—though we welcome proposals on a range of issues related to the larger theme of gaining or losing freedom in geographic areas throughout the Atlantic World and beyond.

 Proposals, Conference Format, and Post-Conference Publication:

Please submit panel or paper proposals with session title, presentation title(s), contact information, and institutional affiliation for all participants in PDF or Word format to Adam Domby at Deadline for proposals is September 1st, 2017. Paper proposals should be around 250 words long. Panels should include abstracts for each paper and an additional summary of the panel’s goals. As with a number of prior CLAW gatherings, this conference will take the form of a symposium where participants will discuss pre-circulated papers. Thus, if your paper is accepted, we will expect a complete version of the paper by February 1st for pre-circulation among participants. This allows presenters to pre-circulate full-length articles rather than the often-truncated versions that are read aloud. At the conference, presenters will then have a maximum of ten minutes to talk about the paper with the bulk of each session being devoted to discussion of the papers that participants will already have read.

Holding the conference in this manner allows us to move toward publication of selected papers in a greatly expedited fashion. Immediately after the conference, the organizers will complete their selection of essays to include in an edited volume. Final versions of papers for the volume will then be due some three months after the March conference (end of June 2018).


Keynote address will be given by Bruce Baker, author of What Reconstruction Meant: Historical Memory in the American South (2007), and editor of both Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles Over the Meaning of America’s Most Tumultuous Era (2017), and After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South (2013).

Some Questions to Consider:

Did Reconstruction fail? If so, why did it fail? If not, what did it accomplish?

Do we need a new interpretation of Reconstruction? Does its traditional periodization still work?

How does the public understand Reconstruction?

How does Reconstruction continue to shape popular culture?

What role does Reconstruction play in modern politics?

Reconstruction is often viewed as a southern story. Yet, the South is inherently tied to the rest of the world. How did Reconstruction impact the rest of the world?

How has Reconstruction continued to impact the Atlantic World?

How were international understandings of race and race relations shaped by Reconstruction?

How does the South’s post-emancipation experience compare to other parts of the Atlantic world’s which experienced emancipation? How does the South’s post war period compare to other parts Atlantic world that experienced similar post-war periods?

How did Reconstruction influence the Civil Rights movement?

How did education shape Reconstruction and its legacy?

How did the Civil War influence Reconstruction in ways previously unnoticed?

Public Exhibit

The College of Charleston Libraries will host an original exhibit curated by historians and archivists showcasing the documentary heritage of Reconstruction and the post-emancipation era in South Carolina and the Atlantic world. Informed by cultural heritage objects from repositories across the region, the display will offer the public the opportunity to engage with sources that inform the (re)interpretation of the freedoms gained and lost during the Reconstruction era.

Transforming Public History conference a great success

Transforming Public History from Charleston to the Atlantic World” drew over 280 participants from Barbados, Brazil, Colombia, and the United Kingdom as well as all over the US.  The keynote lecture by Dr Lonnie Bunch, founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was delivered in Mother Emanuel Church, just two days before the anniversary of the dreadful massacre perpetrated there in 2015. Dr Bunch’s speech was powerful and inspiring. The following day saw a conversation with black British author Caryl Phillips, much of whose work has touched on issues of race and the legacy of the international slave trade. In addition to those two public events, a series of workshops, plenary sessions, and panel presentations addressed the many and various issues of race and social justice that confront public historians as they attempt to interpret historic sites and to render historical narratives more properly inclusive.

Rather than comment further on the conference, let me refer you to a blog-post by one of the conference participants, Angela Sutton, on the SmartWomenWrite site. Angela describes herself as  “juiced up from one of the most thoughtfully constructed conferences I’ve attended in a long while.” Take a read to see why.

Former CLAW director, Dr David Shields, wins 2017 SEC Faculty Achievement Award

Posted on April 12, 2017

Dr David Sheilds, the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and former director of the Carolina Lowcountry Atlantic World Program, was recently awarded the 2017 SEC Faculty Achievement Award for his teaching, research and scholarship which focuses on early American literature, cinematic portrait photography and the revival of Southern foods. Recipients of the SEC Faculty Achievement Award are awarded $5000 (honorarium) and are also nominated for the SEC Professor of the Year Award.

Throughout his career, Dr Sheilds,has written and produced numerous monographs and articles for both the academic sphere as well as the culinary world exploring the role of food in Southern culture. He has also published extensively on American literature during the early Republic.

Outside of academia, Dr Sheilds is also the chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation which seeks to advance the sustainable restoration and preservation of Carolina Gold Rice and other heirloom grains and raise public awareness of the importance of historic rice lands and heirloom agriculture.


North American Society for Oceanic History 43rd Annual Conference

Posted on April 10, 2017

On Monday, May 15th, the College of Charleston will host the North American Society for Oceanic History (NASOH) 43rd annual conference. This year’s conference will see professors and academics from across the world present papers covering a range of topic that pertain to “Ventures into the Western Ocean: Global Maritime Communities, Commerce, and Conflicts.” Presentations will explore a wide range of maritime connections, cultural landscapes, or an interweaving of both to examine the meaning and processes of our maritime heritage.

Christophe Boucher, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston, will be presenting a paper which explores the role of Native Americans in the fall of Fort Caroline in the 16th Century.  Prof. Boucher said that he is delighted that the College of Charleston has been afforded the opportunity to host such a prestigious conference, stating that “the upcoming conference presents an excellent opportunity for those within the discipline to remain engaged within the realms of oceanic history.”

Further information on the The North American Society for Oceanic History and its mission can be found here.