A celebration of education is on display at Charleston’s City Gallery with two artistic pieces studying the legacy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Without Regard to Race, Sex or Color by Andrew Feiler and HBCUs: Creating Power Through Education by Synthia Saint James will be on display until Oct. 6, 2019.
After Feiler submitted a proposal for his photography exhibition, gallery manager Anne Quattlebaum thought of a piece that had previously shown at the MOJA Arts Festival that could fit alongside Feiler’s.
“The MOJA Festival had worked with Synthia Saint James previously and so we knew that her work, especially all these prints that she has done for HBCUs, would be a wonderful kind of fit for this piece.” She adds, “between the two exhibitions, it’s a really nice balance of the pain of what has happened [at Morris Brown] but then the sort of celebratory, joyful work of Synthia Saint James.”
The pain that Quattlebaum refers to is that of Morris Brown College’s recent financial hardships. The college filed for bankruptcy back in 2012 which was an event that caused Feiler to begin photographing the school and researching HBCUs. During the exhibit’s opening reception he outlined why he decided to look at Morris Brown through a photographic lens.
“This is a hugely important story,” Feiler says. “It’s got race as a historically black college. It has religion as it was founded under the auspices of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It has class because over time, Morris Brown had become a college that specifically focused on children from the families of lesser means.”
Morris Brown never closed its doors and is continuing to come back from bankruptcy by paying off debt, selling land, and applying for reaccreditation. This comes at a time when education is at the forefront of public debate during the 2020 presidential debates with several candidates releasing their plans for public education reform and student debt relief.
A fifth-generation Georgian, Feiler describes himself as “Jewish, Southern, activist, and progressive.” After traveling the world for years, he ultimately made his way back to the South. “I came back to Atlanta because it was a place where I could be involved. My photography is an expression of [my personal] values and civic values, so I look for stories that are southern stories and important stories.”
Feiler states that his work “replants the story in the midst of this core societal debate: how do we create access to the American middle class? I have had African Americans tell me that HBCUs, their time has come and gone. I have had whites tell me that too.”
Founded in 1881, Morris Brown College was one of about 120 HBCUs created in the decades following the Civil War to educate African American students. During his research Feiler found that the number of HBCUs in the United States has been falling while these colleges are still a large part of the American education system.
“I came across this stunning statistic: there were originally about 120 HBCUs, we’re down to about 100. Those remaining 100 colleges are 3 percent of the colleges in America, they are more than 10 percent of African Americans that go to college, and they are more than 25 percent of African Americans that earn degrees.” Feiler adds, “when you see that data, you realize that these colleges are an essential onramp to the American middle class.”
On the second floor above Feiler’s work, Saint James has a series of paintings on display. All of her pieces in the exhibition were commissioned for HBCUs between 2011 and 2019 featuring bright, abstract imagery that depict groups of people in celebration around education. Together, the works of Feiler and Saint James chronicle the triumphs and hardships of HBCUs in the modern American education system.
“In 1644 we start the concept of taxpayer funded education in this country,” says Feiler. He believes the broader theme of the exhibition is to look at the two pieces in both historical and present-day lenses. “From 1644 to 2019. That is 375 years of education in America being the backbone of how anyone can have access to the American dream, and now that is a tradition at risk. Ultimately, that’s the story of this work.”
City Gallery is free and open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and noon to 5 p.m. on the weekend.