Invisible no more

Speech made Dec. 5, 2017, at dedication of historical markers on the Horseshoe honoring the enslaved men and women who helped build and worked at South Carolina College before the U.S. Civil War

Good morning! And thank you Pastor Jackson. As I look out over this wonderful congregation … this wonderful community … I am humbled … and I come to you humbly, yet gratified. We are here as students, teachers, colleagues, neighbors — united in desire … and in need … to give belated thanks and recognition to the contributions of persons who toiled during the foundation of this college, and during its first 64 years. Yet they did not toil, build or serve freely. They were enslaved.

I don’t know how to give thanks and recognition in this context although I HAVE thought about it a great deal. And so I ask your help. We MUST do this together.

It’s not that saying thank you is inherently hard … it is not. I say thank you all the time and so do you. It’s a core principle of mine to thank and to recognize people.

But, today, the people we come to thank and recognize are so long gone … and were so abused, that it may be too little, too late … still we must try. We must do this together. Will we be heard by the enslaved people who lived and labored right here — inside and outside this stately chapel and others within the faculty and student residences located on the Horseshoe — when the University of South Carolina was known as South Carolina College. I do not know. But still we must try. So I ask your help. We MUST do this together.

I welcome our keynote speaker Professor Bobby Donaldson who I have asked to lead USC’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research. This Center seeks to bring our civil rights history to life and inspire an informed dialogue about today’s social justice issues.

I also would like to recognize mayor pro tempore, the Honorable Tameika Isaac Devine who is a ’97 graduate of our School of Law. I thank Chief Diversity Officer John Dozier, our faculty and the Engagement Subcommittee of the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee, and all others who navigated us toward this day.

Twentieth century writer Ralph Ellison — poignant observer of the African-American experience — wrote, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”  

Surely this was the case in the 19th century as well. From 1801 through February of 1865, enslaved people were absolutely an integral part of the daily operations at South Carolina College … visible yet invisible … from masonry to meal preparation, to setting up student chemistry labs.

They were in the bondage of private owners, and of the college itself. I don’t mean that their work was invisible … no, not at all. The work of Abraham, Anna, Jack, Lucy, Toby and Tom sustained the college and the lives of those they served. Their labors were surely visible. Still, they were not recognized as fellow citizens, and not recognized by government, even as full human beings.

However, from this day on, two beautiful and strong markers will visibly and forever pay tribute to their circumstances and to their labors … to Abraham, to Anna, to Jack, to Lucy, to Toby, to Tom, and to others whose names we may not know but whose spirit is every bit as strong as the spirits of all the other departed persons in the history of this university. The markers will bear witness to an intertwined history.

Located prominently on the historic Horseshoe, these markers will visibly acknowledge South Carolina College’s role in our nation’s dark history while also honoring the exquisite and beautiful work of each hand that created and laid down the mortar and the brick, or supported the lives of faculty and students in their residence halls.

The markers also represent our debt of gratitude to these men and women, who had a significant impact on who we, as an institution, are — even today.

And each plaque represents our ongoing quest to discover a more complete history of our beginnings and, perhaps, more stories to be told. A history of Abraham, Anna, Jack, Lucy, Toby, Tom and others, whose names we know not, but who are invisible to our university no more.

We cannot know whether the gratitude and recognition we offer is apt or enough. But we will know that our own community, as well as visitors forever more will understand something more about them and, now, about us.