Black History Juneteenth Kevin Cooper

Kevin Cooper: Whitewashing Historical Truths: The Story of Sullivan’s Island

While everyone's heard of Ellis Island, the equivalent port of arrival for countless slaves is rarely mentioned in American history, writes Kevin Cooper from death row in San Quentin.
Sullivan’s Island. Photo from

By Kevin Cooper / Original to ScheerPost

Throughout the history of this country, the narrative has remained for the most part a white—and a whitewashed— ‘his-story.’  This is despite the fact that people of many different cultures have helped to build this country after it was forcibly taken from its Indigenous caretakers. Even those enslaved were made to contribute to the building of what is now the United/Divided States of America. 

People of every culture in America have rich histories unique to them, yet their stories most often were told by those from the dominant white culture, often watered down or made into a European-type adventure in which their protagonists were either subjugated or murdered in the name of manifest destiny.

Others were victims of lies or ignored and made invisible, so they went about the task of recording their own history, but in order to pass down their spoken word and other aspects of their history, as many are doing in 2023, they had to find different ways to preserve it. The best way was in books, but they had little to no access to those who owned the publishing companies that printed the books. They knew then as now that books are a rich and important source of knowledge, and with knowledge comes power. Especially the power of self, because if for only the first time in a person’s life they learn that every negative thing said about them and their people was distorted by lies posing as facts, they begin to look at themselves and other people differently. 

When one learns how their people contributed to the building of this country, and that their culture and history and heritage are beautiful with all the positivity that comes with it, that person and people gain a real sense of self respect, dignity, pride and purpose. This was a significant reason why oppressors forbid and punish certain groups of people from reading books, and learning, except books like the Bible and white supremacy books that portrayed Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian peoples inferior. This also includes to a degree contributions by white women, who were either written out of ‘his-story,’ or became footnotes in it. 

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These and other truths I learned by reading all types of books here on death row at San Quentin prison. Books are at times the only real connection that I have with the outside world, and of course with history. The more I read and learn,  I want to read and learn even more, realizing I may never know about the full truth of this country’s diverse peoples and all of their histories, including my own as an African American.

Unfortunately, there are certain people and oppressors who want to keep truth and knowledge of the past unknown to the masses. More than 1,000 books have been taken off school bookshelves in 26 states. For example, a school district in Florida took out of classrooms and school libraries the biographies of baseball greats Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron and a book titled “Dim Sum for Everyone,” with a little Asian girl on the cover, while the school board studies whether they and about 170 more are are harmful for children to read.  

Yet these censors would all say that this country is a “free country.” These same tactics are done to keep knowledge and truth of diverse groups of people from the minds and hearts of the children. They are once again “whitewashing” the history of this country. These censors fear their children and grandchildren will learn about what was done to damn near every population of different non-white peoples whose feet walked upon this land.

I say all of that to say these truths: I was reading the book “Dirty Little Secrets” by Claud Anderson Ed.D. about Black history, its heroes, and other “troublemakers.” Within this book is a section about a certain island that I never heard of before. I learned so many things about Black, white and other people in this book that I couldn’t stop reading it.

This island that I learned about is called Sullivan’s Island, and it was where most Black Africans were delivered to the U.S. to be sold into slavery, while white immigrants were put ashore on Ellis Island, New York, before being allowed into this country.

This island is still around today, located right across the channel from the city of Charleston, South Carolina. It’s believed that up to 40 percent of all Black Africans who arrived in this country from 1619 to the early 1800s passed through Sullivan’s Island, the clearing house for enslaved  Africans who were bound for the plantations throughout the South.

At Sullivan’s Island these enslaved human beings were cleaned up, sorted out based upon sex, tribe, size, skin complexion, breeding, and age depending on where they were going and what they would be doing. This sorting out included their attitude because not every enslaved African was willing to submit to being enslaved against their will. So it was in Sulivan’s Island that they were “broken and seasoned” in order to have them ready to be auctioned off at the many different slave markets where they were sold for the highest price that any white person was willing to pay for that particular enslaved human being.When I had use of the prison phone, I called my editor and asked her if she ever heard of Sullivan’s Island, and she said no. But she went online to research its history and found the current Sullivan’s Island website, and told me what I had described to her about the history of the island and the enslaved people who were sent there was not mentioned on that site. So, I ask her what was mentioned? She read to me from the brochure, “Welcome to Sullivan’s Island,” as seen below:

This is another case of “whitewashing history” and denying the truth about the history of that island. My editor went to Wikipedia and found the pages on the Sullivan’s Island entry were even more detailed in the historical truth than it was in “Dirty Little Secrets.”

In fact, Wikipedia states Sullivan’s Island was the point of entry for approximately 40 to 50 percent of the 400,000 enslaved Africans brought to colonial America, meaning that 99% of all Black Americans have ancestors that came through that island. That likely includes me as well, even though I will never know this is true.

It cannot be a mistake that this historical information was omitted from the official Sullivan’s Island website. Sullivan’s Island and its pristine beaches, award winning restaurants and close knit community must be a white people’s domain in which they for their own selfish reason(s) wrote enslaved Black Africans out of the history of the island.

This is another form of banning the truth, banning knowledge, whitewashing history, ignoring the truth. How many other American citizens out there do not know the real and truthful history of Sullivan’s Island? How many other histories in this country are suffering the same fate as the history of Sullivan’s Island in this free country called America?

If it’s left up to certain truth deniers and book banners, you and I and others will never know the real American history in truth and fact. Certain people want to keep it from us, they don’t want us to know about it, yet they and theirs have and still are profiting from the suffering and inhumane treatment, oppression and manmade terror that made many contribute to the making and building of this country.

We all have a right to know the truth about our people’s past, this country’s history, the struggle, lives and experiences of all people that are in this country. The history of Ellis island is kept intact, the history of Sullivan’s Island is not. Two different “islands,” two different peoples went to each, one history is told over and over and over again, and the other…it’s not acknowledged by the very people who inhabit that island today.

We cannot allow knowledge of any kind to be denied because knowledge is power. We cannot allow books to be banned, or voices to be silenced. We can­not allow ‘real history’ to be whitewashed, and the truth to be ignored.

Because if we stand by and let this happen, we all will pay the price because it’s us whose history is being denied, not them. It’s us who stories are not being told, not theirs. It’s us who are once again being victimized by them, and we know who they are…don’t we?

In 1989 the author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, whose books are now being banned in certain states, stated the following about Sullivan’s Island, comparing it to Ellis Island: “There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath or wall, or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road.”  On July 26, 2008, she was joined by 300 supporters of the Toni Morrison Society on Sullivan’s Island and dedicated a black steel bench in memory of the Africans forced into slavery.

The National Park Service in 2009 installed a commemorative marker describing the Sullivan’s Island Quarantine Station. The text on the plaque is he true history of Sullivan’s Island, absent from the brochure :

This is Sullivan’s Island

A place where…Africans were brought to this country under extreme conditions of human bondage and degradation. Tens of thousands of captives arrived on Sullivan’s Island from the West African shores between 1700 and 1775. Those who remained in the Charleston community and those who passed through this site account for a significant number of the African-Americans now residing in these United States. Only through God’s blessings, a burning desire for justice, and persistent will to succeed against monumental odds, have African-Americans created a place for themselves in the American mosaic.

A place where…We commemorate this site as the entry of Africans who came and who contributed to the greatness of our country. The Africans who entered through this port have moved on to meet the challenges created by injustices, racial and economic discrimination, and withheld opportunities. Africans and African-Americans, through the sweat of their brow, have distinguished themselves in the Arts, Education, Medicine, Politics, Religion, Law, Athletics, Research, Artisans and Trades, Business, Industry, Economics, Science, Technology and Community and Social Services.

A place where…This memorial rekindles the memory of a dismal time in American history, but it also serves as a reminder for a people who – past and present, have retained the unique values, strength and potential that flow from our West African culture which came to this nation through the middle passage.

This is real history.

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Kevin Cooper

In 1985, Kevin Cooper was convicted of a 1983 quadruple murder and sentenced to death in a trial in which evidence that might have exonerated him was withheld or destroyed from the defense. Cooper has become active in writing from prison to assert his innocence, protest racism in the American criminal justice system, and oppose the death penalty. His case was scrutinized by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on Jan. 23, 2021May 17, 2018 and June 17, 2017, and by 48 Hours, with Erin Moriarty, most recently on March 21, 2020 in “The Troubling Case Against Keven Cooper.” 

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