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Historic Aiken family celebrates the past while protecting their future legacy

August 9, 2018 GMT

Aiken’s Center for African American History, Arts, and Culture got a boost in fundraising on Saturday when descendants of the Immanuel Institute’s founder visited Aiken for their family reunion.

Over 100 years after the institute’s creation, the Dugas-Coles family celebrated their history and promoted its legacy by pledging money and organizing future fundraising for the center.

It was the first family reunion the Dugas-Coles had in eight years; some of them were seeing the center for the first time.

“We are all about re-establishing the foundation of our history, and introducing it to generations that are unaware,” said Samantha Elliott Briggs, a member of the family who travelled from Birmingham, Alabama, for the event. “We see a bridge between Aiken and Augusta, since our family history is in both places.”

The Dugas-Coles family has roots on both sides of the Savannah River. Their ancestor, the Rev. William R. Coles, moved to Aiken with his wife in 1880 and established the Immanuel Institute on York Street, which functioned as a church and school for freed slave children.

One of the Coles’ daughters, Mamie Aiken Coles, would go on to marry Henry Clayton Dugas, from which the Dugas-Coles family earned their name.

Another family member, Cynthia Dugas Elliot, became a lifelong donor of the center during the reunion and is helping set up fundraisers to continue contributions. The center has special significance for Elliot, who attended first grade there while it was owned by St. Gerard’s Parish.

“It gives me hope,” Elliot said. “I feel a sense of commitment, and responsibility.”

Elliot had special praise for her cousins Thelma Forehand and Bernice Sanders, who were pioneers in the center’s founding.

The reunion involved a tour of the center, and the family listened to guest speakers, including Councilwoman Lessie Price, speak about their hopes for the future establishment.

Elliot said the Dugas-Coles family plans to have another reunion at the Immanuel Institute next year, in continuing celebration of their legacy.

The cultural center will house local and rotating exhibits on African-American history, from the Middle Passage to local Aiken County events. The history of the Immanuel Institute building made it an ideal location to house the center.

The Dugas-Coles are starting up a website at Dugas-Coles.com. For more information about the Immanuel Institute, including fundraising efforts, visit aikenculturalcenter.org or call 803-226-0269.