The cast of 'Finding Freedom: The Journey of Robert Smalls,' produced by the Charleston Gaillard Center, recently held a rehearsal. The play, written by Teralyn Reiter and directed by JaMeeka Holloway with original music from Charlton Singleton, is the first-ever original theatrical production presented by the Charleston Gaillard Center. The play will debut Oct. 6. | Photo by Ruta Smith

Slavery and the resistance to it in Charleston will be the topic of two panel discussions this week in Florida at the annual conference of a national organization founded a century ago by a scholar whose inspiration led to Black History Month.

The International African American Museum (IAAM), the Charleston Gaillard Center and Emanuel AME Church have partnered to discuss on Sept. 22 the “Untold Stories of Black Resistance” during the 108th annual conference of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

The Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston at the College of Charleston on Sept. 23 will present Charleston’s distinction as the site of America’s largest domestic slave auction during ASALH’s conference at Jacksonville’s Hyatt Regency Riverfront.

Staging the five-day conference that starts Sept. 20 in Florida is important now because of the state’s Gov. Ron DeSantis’ aggressive attempts to erase Black history and restrict diversity, equity and inclusion programs in Florida school, said ASALH’s president and retired history professor Dr. W. Marvin Dulaney.

The organization’s meeting will be held a month after a white gunman on Aug. 26 killed himself after he shot and killed three Black people in a Dollar General store in Jacksonville. In a statement on ASALH’s website, Dulaney said, the organization is even more determined to hold its conference in Jacksonville. “We will not be intimidated and scared away from promoting Black history,” he said.

Historian and journalist Carter G. Woodson founded ASALH in 1915 in Washington, D.C., and a decade later he and the organization launched the first “Negro History Week” observance during the second week of February that evolved into Black History Month.

The sessions on Charleston resonate personally with Dulaney, a retired University of Texas at Arlington history professor. He is a former associate professor of history at the College of Charleston where for a time he also did double duty as chairman of the history department and director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. 

“I feel pride that these Charleston institutions are coming to ASALH,” said Dulaney, who is serving in his second year of a three-year term as ASALH’s president.

The IAAM, Gaillard, Emanuel partnership

The IAAM, the Gaillard and Emanuel partnership emerged from the trio’s music and comedic performances last summer on the 200th anniversary of the Denmark Vesey slave revolt. The events highlighted Vesey’s alleged plot to kill white Charlestonians on July 14, 1822, then flee with his supporters to Haiti where enslaved people had waged a successful 12-year revolt against France. Vesey was a leader in the African Church, a forerunner to Emanuel.

Jerry Harris, president of Charleston’s ASALH branch, said he encouraged the IAAM, the Gaillard and the church to continue their relationship to illustrate during the ASALH conference how local organizations can tell Charleston’s story of Black resistance.

The ASALH presentation will include the story of Civil War hero Robert Smalls who in 1862 commandeered the Planter, a Confederate steamship, before he gave it to the Union Navy. The Gaillard-produced play, Finding Freedom: The Journey of Robert Smalls, premieres Oct. 6. 

During the conference, Harris will moderate the panel discussion with Lissa Frenkel, the Gaillard’s president and CEO, Dr. Felice Knight, IAAM’s director of education, and Lee Bennett, Emanuel’s historian. Harris said he encouraged the Gaillard to join ASALH as an institutional member as the first step to propose the panel discussion.

“The Gaillard Center has prioritized exploring the vast and complex history of Charleston by using the arts to bridge divides and build dialogue, and to uplift underrecognized historical figures and their stories,” Frenkel said in a statement emailed to the Charleston City Paper. “In doing this the Gaillard has also been dedicated to creating partnerships with other local nonprofits and community groups to create a broader platform for conversation in the community.”

Dr. Tonya Matthews, the IAAM’s president and CEO, is unable to attend the ASALH conference. She will be in Washington, D.C., to receive the Legacy Award from The Black Women’s Agenda, Inc.

Slavery’s legacy hiding in plain sight

In his proposal to the conference planners, Dr. Bernard Powers Jr., founding director of the CofC’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, wrote that: “The historic city of Charleston is best known for its charm and beauty as millions from around the world visit its quaint streets and antebellum homes. Yet, fundamentally unknown are the stories of Charleston’s slave traders, the businessmen whose work was vital to both the transatlantic and domestic slave trades.”

Powers, CofC’s history professor emeritus, will moderate a discussion with retired Charleston businesswoman Margaret Seidler who discovered slave traders in her family, prompting her to support more expansive research about her ancestors’ slave-trading business based on Broad Street.

Lauren Davila, an adjunct CofC history professor, will talk about her stunning discovery of an 1835 advertisement to auction 600 men, women and children. It marks the largest known auction of enslaved people in the United States, Powers said. 

Charleston resident Jennifer Berry Hawes, the South reporter for ProPublica, took the slave auction story a step further to find the plantation dynasty that orchestrated the massive sale, along with details about enslaved people who stood on the auction block.

Powers said, “This panel demonstrates how people from across one community are working to tell a more complete history of their city by using a variety of public history tools to overcome the silences and amnesia surrounding the role of slavery and the domestic slave trade in shaping Charleston’s historical and modern landscape.”

Other South Carolina presenters

In addition to the Charleston organizations, four other panel topics will cover Black history in South Carolina and Gullah Geechee culture.

On Sept. 20, Gullah Geechee advocate Marquetta Goodwin will discuss “Gullah/Geechee: Resistance as a Cultural Legacy.”

Cecil Williams, founder of the Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum in Orangeburg, on Sept. 21 will discuss “The South Carolina History that Shaped America.” Also on that day, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission based in Beaufort will lead a discussion on “Black Leadership and Advocacy for a Uniquely American Culture.”

“Deeply Rooted: Preserving and Celebrating Gullah Geechee Heritage” is the title of a roundtable on Sept. 22 that will explore the relationship between Black life, culture and history by examining the celebration and preservation of Gullah Geechee culture in coastal South Carolina and Georgia.

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