In Charleston, S.C., history clings to everything like a wet blanket. Sullivan’s Island in Charleston County is the site of an important Revolutionary War battle, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and a place that was considered the “Ellis Island of the South” — where enslaved Africans were quarantined before entering Charleston. It’s also where Otis Westbrook Pickett grew up.
Though he never would have seen himself teaching history growing up, it’s exactly what Pickett has been doing at Mississippi College since 2013. The associate professor of history also directs the university’s social studies education programs. An alumnus of Clemson University (B.A. ‘03), Pickett will return to his alma mater in July 2022, where he will serve as university historian.
Before attending Clemson, Pickett wanted to be like his grandfather, Otis M. Pickett, one of two town physicians in Mount Pleasant, S.C. from the end of WWII through the 1970s and a recipient of the Palmetto Award, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor.
“He was my hero and my idol, and I wanted to be him,” says Pickett. “And I wanted to go to med school so I could be him. That lasted about a semester!”
Pickett also suffered from early-onset degenerative disc disease, multiple ruptured or herniated discs, and spinal stenosis.
“My identity growing up was athletics. . .. And then, when I was eighteen, I couldn’t walk, and kind of had this really quick realization, like, ‘I’m going to have to find a career where I use my mind and not my body.’”
Pickett’s time at Clemson was extremely formative.
“It was very sobering and revealing,” he says. “When you grow up in South Carolina in the 80s and 90s, there was not a lot of history around issues of race, or an interpretation of the Civil War or Reconstruction that represented the perspective of really anything outside of the Lost Cause narrative.”
Having attended a Catholic high school, Pickett was comfortable talking about his faith before he arrived at Clemson.
“I got very comfortable from a very young age sharing what happened in my faith journey,” he says.
It wasn’t too long before Rev. Herman Robinson, an African American Baptist minister (and Pickett’s pastor), encouraged him to pursue pastoral ministry.
“Herman told me — he called me ‘Wes’ — he said, ‘Wes, I think you’re going to be a pastor, and God’s going to use you in the church.’
After graduating from Clemson, Pickett and his wife Julie, whom he had met at the university, set off for Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo.
Pickett often reflects on how his seminary experience shaped him: “I never thought I was qualified enough to be a Ph.D. professor at a university. I never felt like I was intelligent enough or good enough, and so seminary seemed like a really good step, and it was. I loved it.”
Despite the fact that he not only enjoyed seminary but excelled in it, something didn’t feel right for Pickett. Unlike many of his classmates, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted out of a seminary degree.
“[Professor] Sean Lucas, at that time, was like ‘Hey, you should think about history grad school.’ And I contacted my advisor from undergraduate and I asked him about that, and he said, ‘I always thought that would be a good fit for you.’ I was like, ‘Why didn’t you say that in undergrad?’”
Pickett had changed course but wouldn’t leave Covenant without an MA (Theological Studies) degree. For his last year in seminary, he focused exclusively on church history and worked as an intern in the archives of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
“That’s really where I fell in love with researching history,” he says.
Pickett applied to several programs before the College of Charleston accepted him and offered a full tuition waiver and a graduate assistantship at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. Formerly the first school for African Americans in Charleston during Reconstruction, the Avery Center had been converted into a museum and archives.
For Pickett, a native Charlestonian, a chance to work at the Avery Center was a chance to go home and to relearn the history of Charleston and South Carolina.
“That was a really amazing educational experience. … I took classes in everything from the history of India to Germany, to the U.S. South, to the African American experience, to church history — I mean, Southern religious history, Native American history, and I was just eating it up.”
The Picketts came to Mississippi in 2008, where Pickett would begin Ph.D. studies at the University of Mississippi, working with Dr. Charles Wilson, whom several of Pickett’s former professors had studied under.
“That’s the reason I came to Mississippi, and my thinking was I was going to go right back to South Carolina and work. We ended up falling in love with the state and we ended up falling in love with its people. And I think the state is just such a very special place.”
Upon finishing his Ph.D., the newly minted Dr. Pickett was contacted by Mississippi College. MC needed someone with a very specific set of skills: someone with a Ph.D. in history who had also worked in educational settings and was a Christian. Pickett was asked to apply for the job.
“I didn’t know anything about MC at all when I was applying here. … And so, I started asking around Mississippians like, ‘What is MC like?’ And I kept hearing back: They produce a very high-quality student, a lot of students who want to go to law school, a lot of students who take their studies very seriously, and that faith is a huge part of the university’s mission. And that sounded like a place that Julie and I wanted to be.”
After three separate interviews and teaching a class, Pickett was offered the job and accepted. Pickett describes a picture-perfect “constellation” of things that made living and working in Clinton ideal, not the least of which were teaching and ministering at MC and attending Redeemer Church in Jackson, a multiethnic Presbyterian church where Pickett serves as a ruling elder.
After almost 10 years at Mississippi College, Pickett talks about what has made it a rewarding experience.
“My favorite thing about MC is that there is a definite family feel here,” he says. “And you don’t typically see professors across disciplines working together a lot. And my favorite things I’ve been able to do here are teach interdisciplinary classes with professors from different departments. …To see how our disciplines can speak to one another, the freedom to do that here has been incredibly encouraging.”
An interdisciplinary approach to race and racial reconciliation have been central to Dr. Pickett’s academic and professional work since well before his arrival at MC.
“My hope for Mississippi College moving forward is that Mississippi College can be a leader in that conversation,” he says. “I think we were one of the first Christian universities in the south to develop a prison education program that offer[s] credit to incarcerated learners.”
In all his endeavors at MC, from the first-of-its-kind Prison-to-College Pipeline Program to his advisement of social studies education students, Dr. Pickett has sought to leave a legacy of love.
“Just like my grandfather,” he says. “He tried to love and sometimes he failed, but kept trying to love his neighbor.”
The beloved professor has even had the opportunity to help officiate the weddings of former students.
Continuing to reflect on the university’s future, Pickett said, “It’s going to be an interesting time in the 21st century for Christian believers. And I would like to see Mississippi College help prepare Christians to kind of think through that as they enter the workforce.”
In the spring of 2022, Dr. Pickett announced that he would be leaving MC to serve as university historian at Clemson. The opportunity is a long-awaited homecoming for the fourth-generation alumnus.
“Clemson, to us, is like — it’s home more than any other place in the world. And so, to get the opportunity to go back home is just an absolute dream I never thought would be realized ever.”
As the third university historian, Dr. Pickett is also the first university historian to be an alumnus of the institution. He will be transitioning his role into the university library system, where he will disseminate Clemson history to alumni and students and oversee the university’s historic properties, special collections, and archives. Finally, he will hold a clinical assistant professor position Clemson’s Department of Teaching and Learning.
Pickett will also work with Clemson’s provost and Dr. Rhondda Thomas, a professor of literature, on the Woodland Cemetery project.
“The big story that has not been told about Clemson is the institution’s connection with the institution of slavery and convict leasing. … A lot of that stuff has not been really dealt with,” he says.
He describes his role as that of a trained historian who also understands Clemson alumni and South Carolinians and can help them process the institution’s history in the same way that he was taught as an undergraduate.
“To really lovingly walk with people to help them understand is what I want to do.”
Ultimately, Pickett’s purpose and drive at Clemson is the same as it has been at Mississippi College: “It gets at this question of, ‘What do you really want?’ and ‘What’s the real goal?’ Do you want to just destroy for the sake of destroying, or do you want people to grow? And as a teacher, my goal is to want people to grow.”