Professor Emeritus Bernard Powers retired in May after 27 years in the College of Charleston’s History Department. A few months later, he’s back to work after former colleagues decided to create the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston.
But Powers doesn’t mind his retirement was so short.
“First of all, we’re here in Charleston and Charleston historically played a very important role in the development of American slavery,” the center’s first director said. “About 40 percent — in fact, more than 40 percent — of the Africans introduced in North America entered through the Port of Charleston. So location is important.”
Initially, the department wanted to join up with the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium. But after continued discussions, faculty wanted to establish their own center in Charleston.
“There has been in the past several years a tendency amongst universities to begin to examine their relationship to the institution of slavery and so this is an area of intellectual study now,” Powers said. “It is a way for unlikely institutions like colleges and universities to come to grips more honestly and openly with their past.”
Slaves built some of the buildings at the College and the bricks used on the buildings and many of the other buildings in Charleston were made by enslaved people. Some of the property the College acquired for the campus was purchased from free persons of color. The men who served as the College’s trustees acquired their wealth largely with slave labor.
Powers said the College has “a wide array of specializations on the faculty and staff which allow us to do an excellent job in really researching this subject and ultimately making our findings public.”
He said the mission is to bring history into a contemporary context that includes social justice. He said ,contrary to what is often taught, slavery as an institution had an impact on the economy, politics and culture of the entire nation, not just Southern states. And those effects did not end with emancipation.
“The country has never really come to grips with the role that slavery has played in the past,” he said. “We argue to the contrary that there’s a very profound legacy that developed in the wake of emancipation and we still exist today in the throes of that legacy.”
Powers says the research conducted by the center will look into the College itself, the city of Charleston and the surrounding region.
“As we explore the story of slavery and as that story becomes more well-known, we hope that then we and others will be able to make the case that some steps, some measures, ought to be taken to promote social justice to mitigate some of the problems that are part and parcel to the legacy of the institution of slavery and the way it worked in America,” Powers said.
He cited a recent example of Georgetown University identifying the descendants of more than 200 slaves the University owned who were sold in the 1850’s to raise money to keep the University operating, “and provided the first steps toward remediating the harm that slavery visits upon their families.”
“Far too many people believe that we’re disconnected from the past in ways that we’re not,” he said. “Something needs to be done in order to remediate the harm that slavery as an institution visited upon the enslaved people and their descendants.”
Powers is a member of the board of directors of the International African American Museum, which is scheduled to open in Charleston in 2020. He expects the college to develop a close working relationship with the IAAM.