Beyond Catfish Row wanted to find out more about the shockingly revealing exhibit "The Struggle for Integration at the College of Charleston, 1943-2015," which is on display in the first-floor rotunda of the College's Addlestone Library through March. So we went to Dr. Mari N. Crabtree, Assistant Professor of African American Studies, who put it together with strong support from within the College. Here's our Q & A with Crabtree:
Was there any one moment or event that prompted you to want to do what the exhibit became?
During our annual planning meeting last May, the African American Studies Program decided that we would like to put together an exhibit about African American history at the College of Charleston for Black History Month. Since, as a historian, I work in archives regularly, I elected to research and curate the exhibit. I did some preliminary research on potential topics from slavery at the College to the racial geography of the campus, but eventually I settled on desegregation because the archival sources on campus were so rich. The ultimate purpose of the exhibit is to raise questions about the College's institutional culture, and this issue seemed particularly pressing given several high-profile cases of racial violence in Charleston during the past year or so.
Did the College cooperate with your project?
In a word, yes. The College's Library, especially the staff at Special Collections and the Avery Research Center, provided research and administrative assistance at every stage of the project, and the African American Studies Program and the School of Languages, Cultures, and World Affairs (of which AAST is a part) provided the funding necessary to cover printing costs for the exhibit. I also received research assistance from a graduate student in the History Department, Taylor Matthews, and colleagues around campus provided insightful feedback on a draft of the exhibit.
Has the College ever formally apologized for its long resistance to and legal battle against desegregation?
As far as I know, the College (i.e. the Trustees and/or President) has not formally apologized, although in 2008 the College commemorated the desegregation of the College. The President at the time, George Benson, expressed regret about the College's refusal to desegregate until 1966.
What kind of reactions are you getting or hearing about from faculty, students - both white and black - and the general public?
I have only received very positive reactions thus far, including several requests for copies of the exhibit. A digital version of the exhibit will be published by the College's Lowcountry Digital History Initiative in the fall, so the information in the exhibit will be publicly and permanently accessible in a few months.
What was your personal reaction to all the evidence you assembled showing the College's determination to fight desegregation even in the midst of the contemporaneous "Charleston Movement' for racial equality?
I specialize in African American history after 1865, and my book manuscript examines collective memories of lynching during the Civil Rights era. Given my research and teaching expertise, I can't say I was terribly surprised by the College's response to integration attempts. Resistance to racial justice has been a constant in American history, most especially in the South, and despite the supposedly genteel reputation of Charleston, the city has a particularly brutal history of racial oppression. After all, Charleston was the entry point for so many enslaved Africans into the Americas, and the economic foundations of South Carolina and the United States more broadly are rooted in the exploitation of black labor. However, just because I was not surprised by this history does not mean I found the College's response any less horrifying. I found it deeply disturbing to read a memo in which the former President of the college that employs me said, "I do not agree that we should send application blanks to those persons whom we know to be Negroes, because we know that we will refuse such persons admission even though academically qualified. ... I am impelled to say that I simply cannot, in good conscience, have any part in admitting other than white students into an institution for which I am responsible..." Rather than allowing despair to turn into inaction, though, I see this history as a means to generate important conversations on campus about the kind of institution we want to be, and, of course, a means to enact concrete policies that rectify this history of exclusion and white supremacy.
The College today is integrated, but, as your exhibit points out, blacks are only a fraction of their percentage of the state population. What do you think the College should do to increase its black enrollment?
I want to begin by clarifying the distinction between "integration" and "desegregation." Typically, school "desegregation" refers to the enrollment of students of color into what had been white institutions. "Integration," however, implies a deeper change to the institutional culture of a school. Rather than expecting African American students, for instance, to adapt to the existing (white) institutional culture, those who advocate for "integration" seek a fundamental change that does not privilege or render normative the dominant (white) culture. So, as far as I am concerned, the College has been desegregated for decades but still has work to do before the campus achieves integration. As for specific policies and strategies for attracting and retaining African American students, a multi-pronged approach will be necessary. First, the College must build trust with African American communities around the state, but especially in Charleston. Many African Americans who grew up in the East Side neighborhood during Jim Crow still recall the sting of avoiding the campus as they walked to school because the College was such a racially hostile space for them. An honest reckoning with that past of exclusion and hostility is a start, but also the College needs to actively recruit students of color (African American, Latino, Asian American, etc.) and provide sufficient support for those students once they get to campus. Programs like SPECTRA and ROAR that are intended to assist students of color in adjusting to the campus culture and coursework at the college level have been shrinking rather than growing. Another issue on campus is retention. So many students of color leave the college before graduating, and social support and academic support through advising are necessary for students to thrive on campus and to graduate on time. Certain programs on campus, like African American Studies and the Avery Research Center, make an effort to reach out to the African American community when we sponsor public events, but I think the College could do even more to make this public institution more welcoming to all members of the public.
Looking at the College today, do you see a new spirit for racial equality that encourages you?
I think many members of the campus community seem genuinely invested in changing the institutional culture of the College. Enthusiasm and interest alone are not sufficient for bringing out substantive change. Frank conversations about the College's history and the history of white supremacy in the United States, not just in African American Studies courses but across campus, would be a start. Also, orientation programs often set the tone for incoming students, so college-wide programs like orientation would be a good forum for raising awareness of the intersections between racism, misogyny, classism, etc. A sustained dialogue is ultimately going to be necessary, though. Every semester, faculty, students, staff and administrators plan workshops, lectures, film screenings, teach-ins,and performances that broach the subject of race and power, but often these events attract audiences who tend to be aware of these issues already. To some extent, the problem is publicity, but also many of the people who would benefit the most from attending these events (or taking African American Studies courses) choose not to attend. That being said, I have been truly inspired by many of my students who work on and off campus, inside and outside of the classroom, to address social justice issues. This semester alone, I have students who spent spring break conducting research with the ACLU in a court-watching project and others who ran workshops about creating a more socially aware student body. Many of my students are active in local (and national, in some cases) civil rights organizing, and after graduation they want to pursue careers that allow them to address social justice issues. I see great potential on this campus, but potential alone is not enough.