» Student Research at the College of Charleston: Olivia Williams

April 8, 2021
News & Notes, Archive Spotlight

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture currently has two graduate assistants on staff. Graduate assistants can come from various departments on campus, but during the 2020-2021 academic year we have two history graduate students, Olivia Williams and Joshua Parks, this is their second year working with us. They are both completing their degree programs by writing a thesis. Below you will find a description of Williams’ thesis and why this research is important.

My name is Olivia Williams. I am from Greenville, SC and am currently pursuing a Masters in History with a concentration in Public History at the College of Charleston. I chose to study freed people and how they secured power through education during Reconstruction in South Carolina. This became my area of focus because of the work I do at McLeod Plantation Historic Site about the history of slavery and its legacies.

McLeod Plantation Historic Site, which is owned by Charleston County Parks and Recreation, is the location of an Antebellum Sea Island Cotton plantation, located on James Island. It also served as a regional headquarters for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands from 1865-1870. The Freedmen’s Bureau period at McLeod inspired me to study how obtainable an education was for formerly enslaved people because McLeod’s main house was temporarily used to educate formerly enslaved children. While the Freedmen’s Bureau was using William McLeod’s home, they provided aid to many freed people on James Island and assisted in land distribution. Although many of the freed people who received land did not get to keep it due to land ownership reversal by President Andrew Johnson, there are still descendant communities located around McLeod Plantation Historic Site. For these communities, the work being done at McLeod in telling the truth about enslaved people and their ancestors is crucial, especially since African American people lived on the property seasonally until 1990. With the rich enslaved history, as well as the Reconstruction history, McLeod has served as a great resource for my thesis research and overall knowledge of Reconstruction history in Charleston, South Carolina.

My thesis analyzes the power formerly enslaved people gained for themselves during the period following the Civil War. Education became a main priority for freed people, as they realized it would be a route to becoming self-sustaining. This thesis will examine the strength and resilience of the formerly enslaved people during Reconstruction and their want to get an education. Since Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture (originally Avery Normal Institute, established in 1865 by the American Missionary Association) was established as a school for African Americans in Charleston, and it has directly driven my research around schools, and especially Normal Schools. My thesis covers the obstacles African Americans faced with during Reconstruction, how they overcame, an in-depth understanding of the role of white and the obstacles they created for African Americans, how Black southerners pursued an education, and the role President Andrew Johnson played during Reconstruction (he became president after the assassination of President Lincoln). Ultimately, this thesis will illustrate how African Americans, despite years of being in bondage, used the period of Reconstruction and beyond to become self-reliant and obtain as much education as they could, despite the challenges and trauma they faced.

In addition to my published thesis, I will also be working with the Penn Center in St. Helena Island, South Carolina to create a public interpretive project. I will conduct a program on the importance of spaces like the Penn Center (originally the Penn School, established in 1862 in part by Laura Towne, and see image on the right). In this project I will display images of schools, discuss how the Penn School functioned and who Laura Towne was. I will also speak on organizations like the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association and how both were vital parts of Reconstruction.

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture has been extremely instrumental in the development of my thesis topic. The rich archival materials and Edmund Drago’s book Charleston’s Avery Center: From Education and Civil Rights to Preserving the African American Experience, allowed me to analyze the African American population in Charleston during Reconstruction in depth.

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