Since the founding of the College of Charleston in 1770, Africans and their descendants have remained a constant and essential presence on campus. This is unsurprising given that Charleston was a major port in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the commercial center of a plantation region. By the late 1700s, tens of thousands of African men, women, and children were enslaved and brought to Charleston each year to be exploited for their labor and skills.
Enslaved people in South Carolina most often cultivated cash crops like rice, cotton, and indigo on plantations, but they also lived and labored in the city of Charleston and at the College of Charleston. Enslaved Africans and their descendants constructed many of the College’s historic buildings, including Randolph Hall. They were also forced to attend to the needs and desires of the faculty, students, and administrators who owned them while they were teaching, studying, and living on campus. Many among the College’s trustees, presidents, students, and professors were enslavers, and they accumulated vast quantities of wealth from the slave trade and profited directly from enslaved labor, including by “renting out” enslaved people through the slave-hire system. This wealth was foundational to the financial viability of the College of Charleston’s operations and often was the source of tuition payments.
After emancipation in 1865, free Black people continued to work on campus, and their roles remained limited to subservient positions such as janitors and maids. Robert Mathews, for example, was a janitor at the College of Charleston from at least 1901 until shortly before his death in 1947. In his last few years working for the College, Mathews witnessed early organized efforts to desegregate the College when a group of Black students at the Avery Normal Institute unsuccessfully attempted to enroll in the mid 1940s. However, the College continued to exclude African Americans from the student body, faculty, and administration for two more decades. While the College granted admission to a few Asian and Asian American students in the late 1940s, its doors remained closed to Black students until 1967 and to Black faculty until 1972.