“It seems to me there’s a real history commission which is, as everybody knows, the white history commission. And then there’s the Black folk commission over there.“
Two veteran members of a state commission that promotes the preservation of Black history and culture said they were unexpectedly and unceremoniously “removed” from positions held since 1993, when state lawmakers created the S.C. African American Heritage Commission.
In a terse Sept. 7 letter, A.V. Huff Jr. of Greenville, chairman of the South Carolina Commission of Archives and History (SCCAH), informed Mount Pleasant resident Michael Allen, a historian and grassroots community activist, and Hartsville resident Jannie Harriot, a former educator and retired nonprofit administrator, that their terms on the SCAAHC have expired. He thanked them for their service.
In previous years, the SCAAHC sent commissioner recommendations to the commission chaired by Huff. But this year, the commission ignored those recommendations. Instead, on Sept. 3, it chose four new appointees and two current commissioners to serve on the African American Heritage Commission (AAHC). Among its work, the commission supports the listing of African-American historic sites in the National Register of Historic Places and the placement of historical markers at sites important in African-American history.
In an email response to the City Paper, Huff, a history professor emeritus at Furman University, said: “In order to consider appointments I made the judgment that the Commission needed more time to consider the applications we had received; therefore, I called a special meeting. Notice was posted according to state law, and the meeting was open to the public, with the usual exception of time spent in executive session.”
Harriot said, “We got no notice.”
During a Sept. 10 meeting of the SCAAHC, Louis Venters, a history professor at Francis Marion University and an ex-officio commissioner said, “Dr. Huff’s letter was rude. I have a sense when things smell funky. This seems like some kind of strange injustice.”
Harriot said she believes she was removed because she has asked “hard questions” about diversity to Eric Emerson, director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History (SCDAH). The SCCAH is the agency’s governing board and sets policy for its work to preserve more than three centuries of South Carolina’s history. Harriot also has advocated for a more diverse staff at the department in Columbia and more Black representation on the commission of archives and history.
“I’ve asked these questions over the years and over the years Eric Emerson got tired of it,” she said. “He decided to get rid of me and this is his opportunity to do so.”
Allen said, “They have the legal right to do what they have done even though they’ve never done it before. There should have been a conversation.” Allen calls the decision “shortsighted and immature. They were concerned about how we would react. They were cowards.
“As our organization has grown in stature, capacity and viability that may be threatening to whomever,” Allen said. “We didn’t go to the Department of Archives and History in 1993 to create an organization; they came to the African-American preservation groups across the state and asked them to form this organization to better serve the African-American citizens of South Carolina.”
Emerson said Harriot was not removed from the smaller commission, but rather, was not reappointed. Emerson said the vote to not reappoint her is not a consequence of her call for more diversity. “There should be more diversity,” he said.
Emerson acknowledged that in previous years, the full commission of archives and history has abided by the African-American heritage commission’s nominations. But this year there were more applicants than seats to fill. The state law, he said, that created the 15-member SCCAHC does not guarantee permanent appointments. “Are lifetime appointments good government?” he asked.
But Harriot and Allen said some members of the SCCAH have served for decades and there are unfilled seats on the African American Heritage Commission. They were surprised by the terseness of Huff’s letter, which they said lacked an appropriate acknowledgement of their decades of service, including the acclaimed Black Carolinians Speak project, which documents the impact of the pandemic on Black people in the Palmetto State.
Emerson asked, “What more should they expect?” when Harriot and Allen are recipients of the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian award and, on Oct. 21, they are set to receive the Governor’s Award in the Humanities.
It is appropriate, Allen said, for the SCCAH to seek new volunteers for the SCAHC, but they were not notified in advance or had an opportunity to have a conversation about the decision.
Venters, who is white, said the issue sheds a bright light on the racial make-up of the nearly all-white SCCAH and the predominantly Black African American heritage commission.
“It seems to me there’s a real history commission which is, as everybody knows, the white history commission. And then there’s the black folk commission over there. But the black folks’ commission is appointed by the white folks’ commission,” he told his fellow commissioners during the Sept. 10 meeting. “There’s something wrong about that. And I want to talk about that sometime, in some forum.”
Harriot and Allen said they’ll continue to aid the commission’s work. Harriot’s departure moved Abel Bartley, a Clemson University history professor, into the commission’s chairmanship.
“They can volunteer for the commission, but they can’t represent the commission,” Bartley explained. “They have the institutional memory that is invaluable. They created this commission. The fact that they were unceremoniously dumped makes no sense.”