Saturday, January 23, 2010

Slavery and Universities:Update

I'm delighted that plans are moving forward for holding a conference on "Slavery and Universities", most likely in early 2011 at Emory University in Atlanta. We keep on learning of scholars and students working on various aspects of this fascinating topic, and it will be exciting to bring so many of us together. To help with this process, I've created a wiki at:

As I start teaching a course this semester as a visiting faculty member at Harvard, I've been learning more about the complex historical status of slavery in Harvard's early history. I've been fascinated by the work historian Sven Beckert and his sudents have done over the past several years in a research seminar on the topic, including the enslaved persons owned by College President Wadsworth; the founding of the first chair of law at Harvard, endowed out of the slave-based fortune of Isaac Royall; a debate between over African slavery at Harvard's 1773 Commencement; enslaved persons brough north as servants by antebellum Harvard, and the story of the Soledad sugar plan plantation in southern Cuba, in which Harvard was seriously involved until the Cuban Revolution. I'm equally intrigued by the ideological implications (pro-slavery and anti-slavery) of scientific work by Harvard antebelluem faculty, including the well known daguereotypes of enslaved persons in Columbia, South Carolina, commissioned by naturalist Louis Agassiz, now held at the Peabody Museum. ( I share some sources on these topics at:

I would love to know if there are any traces of interaction between enslaved servants on the antebellum Harvard campus and the College's free African-American employees during this period.

More broadly. I'm curious if there are substantial literary references, in fiction or poetry, to the presence or legacies of enslavement on college campuses. A colleague has mentioned an intriguing passage in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; the president of the historically black college, Dr. Bledsoe. keeps a leg shackle from slavery times, as a "symbol of our progress", which he produces during his confrontation with the Narrator. Are there other such literary moment, in which memories or traces of slavery times unexpectedly erupt into a narrative set in the groves of academe? I suspect, however, that the more common trope may be radical opposition between slavery times and the world of higher education; for example, late in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Denver announces to Paul D. her intention to attend Oberlin College, which seems to signal her ultimate detachment from the slavery-haunted world of her mother and house #124.

1 comment:

annie said...