Thursday, April 16, 2009

Slavery and Universities: Possible Conference?

We had a fascinating roundtable panel at the Organization of American Historians annual meetings in Seattle on March 28 on legacies of slavery and the slave trade at American universities.

Jim Campbell (Stanford) discussed the project he'd headed at Brown University, exploring the university's complex historical relationship to the trans Atlantic slave trade. See his presentation on line on the History News Network at:

nb. The Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which Jim chaired, has a fascinating website at:

Al Brophy (UNC) talked about the historical role of American colleges and universities in providing intellectual legtimation for slavery, especially in law and theology, with particular reference to the University of Alabama case. See his videoed presentation:

Leslie Harris (Emory) discussed the Transforming Community Project, a multiyear project of racial, ethnic and class based initiative of reconciliation at Emory, which emerged largely in response to a disturbinging racial incident at Emory several years ago. See her presentation at:

My presentation, on the work my students and I did "excavating" memories and histories of slavery at Emory University, primarily in Oxford, Georgia(the original site of Emory College) is also on line on the History News Network at:
Among other things, I talked about the obelisk (pictured above) in the Oxford, GA City Cemetery to Bishop James O. Andrew (first president of the Emory College Board of Trustees) whose slaveowning status in 1844 catalyzed the great national schism in the Methodist Church; and about my students' work developing exhibitions on slavery in Emory's history.

We then moved into a lively discussion with audience members about the many tangled ways in which the historical legacies of enslavement continute to structure (or perhaps haunt) the "buried lives" of American institutions of higher education. The conversation among other things touched on:
  • Dr. Felix Armfield (Buffalo State College) mentioned his work with colleagues on a "slaves on campus" project, tracing the experiences of enslaved persons brought as "servants" to American colleges and universities by slaveowning students: what impact did the experience of being on college campuses have on these enslaved individuals?
  • Possible forms of restorative justice being explored by some schools; about the impact of such projects of historical research and reflection on faculty, students, staff and community members;
  • ways of sharing documentary histories of slavery and the slave trade (something the Brown University Committee in particular has done on its repository website);
  • the at times banal nature of non-specific blanket apologies for slavery(as at the University of Viriginia and the University of Alabama several years ago); the politics of apology is the topic of a recent book by Melissa Nobles, one of the roundtable's organizers.
  • the challenges of integrating materials on on-campus slavery into the curriculum
  • Jim Crow era loyal slave memorials
  • the difficult cultural politics of "postcolonial" monuments and memorials around slavery and Jim Crow on campus.

Of course, numerous colleagues elsewhere have worked with their students to unearth histories of slavery at their respective institutions. This semester, for instance, Ira Berlin and his students have worked to document slaveowning patterns among founding figures in the history of the University of Maryland. Julie Richter has done comparable work with her students on slavery in the history the College of William and Mary. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Library in 2005 developed on exhibition on the roles of enslaved persons in the making of the school.
We're interested in learning of the many other teaching and research projects along these lines that are surely going on.

It has occured to us that it would be worthwhile holding an academic conference on the topic of slavery and universities. (As Jim notes, this wouldn't necessarily be limited to the United States.) One of the many fascinating problems to explore is the way in which universities have so long been imagined as utopian spaces, yet these spaces (like many other institutions and discursive undertakings associated with early modern, Enlightenment, and Romantic progressivist thought) rested in so many respects upon the structurally invisible labor of the enslaved and the vast profits of the global slave trade.

We're not sure yet who might host the conference. It would be interesting to bring together a wide range of participants, including faculty, students, and college staff members, as well as community partners and family members (descended both from slaveowners and enslaved persons) for critical conversations about research strategies, community engaged learning, and restorative justice on a great range of campuses as we all grapple with the legacies of enslavement, the slave trade, and related forms of racial injustice.

If you have ideas about the conference, or care to share reports on work that has been done at other schools around remembering enslavement on campus, please post a comment in the space below!


J said...

Thanks for recognizing the UNC-Chapel Hill Library's exhibit on "Slavery and the Making of the University." The online exhibit is available at

Some of this information has also been incorporated into the University's "Virtual Museum":

Judy Panitch
Director of Library Communications
UNC-Chapel Hill

Sandy said...

If it hasn't happened yet, I think it would be a terrific idea to have a conference on Slavery and Universities. For three years (2004-2007) I taught a course at UNC at Chapel Hill on "The Economic and Social History of the Black Presence at the University of North Carolina" where we reexcavated tremendous detail about the intimate relationship between UNC and black enslavement. As a Brown alum I'm quite familiar with the project recovering my alma mater's deep connection to the slave trade, and, among the "Ivies", there is substantial information on Yale's connections to slavery and the Confederacy. cheers, Sandy Darity