Saturday, September 4, 2010

Slavery and Academic Reparations

In recent correspondence, Simon Lewis (until recently, the director of the program on the Carolina Lowcounty and the Atlantic World at the College of Charleston) made the fascinating suggestion that as a form of academic reparations "Historically White Colleges and Universities" (HWCUs) should participate in a massive initiative of genealogical research, helping constitute an enormous database that would aid African Americans seeking to trace their lineages back to sites of involuntary importation, and perhaps to Caribbean and African sites of origin. I suppose this could be linked to David Eltis' Trans Atlantic Slave Voyages Database, at http://www.slavevoyages.org/ and the emerging names listings in the database at: http://www.slavevoyages.org/tast/resources/slaves.faces

It occurs to me that this could be integrated with an idea that China Galland, author of "Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves" (HarperCollins, 2008) has been proposing: a national initiative to document and safeguard historic African American cemeteries. China has devoted years in partnership with community activists in East Texas to helping descendants secure access to one specific African American cemetery on private land; she is in the process of making a riveting film about this struggle, previewed at: http://www.chinagalland.com/

During a recent research visit to Augusta, Georgia, I was inspired by the activist research being done by Joyce Law, Travis Halloway and their colleagues in documenting and conserving the extraordinary cultural heritage site of Cedar Grove cemetery, an historic African American cemetery next to the better known Magnolia Cemetery (previously, the Augusta City Cemetery). The photograph above is of three United States Colored Troops graves at Cedar Grove, being documented by Joyce. A decade ago, my students and I at Emory's Oxford College did comparable work in the historic African American cemetery in Oxford, Georgia, described on our old website at: http://www.marial.emory.edu/exhibitions/cemetery/Home.html
Similar work is being done by scholars and community advocates around the nation, although often in ways that are rarely linked to one another.

My recently completed book manuscript (The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of the American South) attempts to integrate restorative cemetery work and genealogical research--in a way that is linked to a single institution of higher learning, Emory University. One of the "charter myths" of Emory is the story of its first president of the Board of Trustees, Bishop James Osgood Andrew, whose ownership of slaves led to the national schism of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844. For his white defenders, Bishop Andrew was a victim of northern intolerance and fanaticism; a great deal of sentimental white writing over the past 160 years has been devoting to his ostensibly benevolent care of one of his slaves, a woman known as Miss Kitty, who in 1841 is said to have refused manumission and colonization to Liberia out of loyalty to her white master and mistress. A memorial tablet erected to her in 1938, in the Oxford, Georgia cemetery, by a white segregationist remains an important site of local white sentimental memory. Local African Americans, not surprisingly, tell very different versions of her story and her relationship with the Bishop. [I explore some of this history and memory work in my on line essay

"The Other Side of Paradise: Glimpsing Slavery in the University's Utopian Landscapes" Southern Spaces (May 2010)
http://www.southernspaces.org/2010/other-side-paradise-glimpsing-slavery-universitys-utopian-landscapes

In the course of all this mythological narration, the actual names and historical experiences of all other enslaved persons owned by Bishop Andrew have been nearly forgotten. So in the book I felt it was ethically important to identify as many of these enslaved persons as possible and genealogically trace their descendants. I was able to identify about thirty five people held as slaves by Bishop Andrew during the course of his life, and was able to sketch out in most instances at least some of their descendants. Among other lines, I was able to locate and meet the descendants of Miss Kitty, who reside in the U.S. northeast; members of this family will be traveling to Emory University and Oxford, Georgia at some point next year, perhaps to the upcoming conference, "Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies" (Feb. 3-6, 2011) and our planned day of reflection and commemoration on Feb. 6. described at http://slavery-and-universities.wikispaces.com/Day_of_Reflection

I wonder if other colleges and universities historically linked to slavery and the slave trade might want to partner together with one another ( and perhaps with Historically Black Colleges and Universities & with the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society ) to develop some sort of systematic initiative around African American genealogy and African American cemeteries. Each school could start with research, perhaps in the context of academic classes, identifying enslaved persons associated with the school’s history in one way or another, and then work on tracing their ancestors and descendants. At the same time, these institutions of higher learning could partner with local congregations and other organizations to help document and preserve relevant cemeteries and burial grounds.

A good deal of such research is already being pursued by some institutions of higher learning, including the College of William & Mary through its Lemon Project (led by Robert Engs); and extensive research materials have been shared on line through Brown University's Commission on Slavery and Justice. I'm wondering what a national or international network of such research projects might look like, with an emphasis on making research materials easily available to the public.

Such an initiative would not ‘solve’ the larger conundrums over reparations by universities or by American society at large, but it might be an interesting place to start--engaging students, staff, faculty and community members in productive and thought provoking partnerships.

1 comment:

collinsmargaret said...

Hi gamin

Art is an diverse range of human activity and this article is fully depends on the cultural arts.

Your imagination skill was awesome

revista de arte