[Marxism] Historians of Slavery Find Fruitful Terrain: Their Own Institutions
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Wed Jun 22 06:53:07 MDT 2016
Chronicle of Higher Education, June 22 2016
Historians of Slavery Find Fruitful Terrain: Their Own Institutions
By Corinne Ruff
Crystal S. Rosson had spent years tracing her family roots — poring over
courthouse documents, asking relatives to show her the unmarked graves
of their ancestors, even quitting her job at a Virginia high school to
devote more energy to her research. With every new picture and article
she uncovered, one thought lingered in her mind: Where had her
great-grandfather Sterling Jones lived?
One day she found her answer. It was a well-kept cabin, once a farm-tool
museum, now mostly vacant. And it sat only a stone’s throw from the back
door of the mansion of the president of Sweet Briar College.
Ms. Rosson had chills. She lives just three miles down the road from
Sweet Briar, and she says her family always felt a connection to the
women’s college, but she never fully understood why. Since the first day
she stood outside that cabin, she has learned more about that connection.
Her great-grandfather was a bricklayer; in fact, he was employed by the
college to construct some of its first buildings after the former
plantation became an institution of higher education. The cabin, she
discovered, was also where Jones’s father probably lived as a slave.
Ms. Rosson called administrators at the college to see if anyone knew
anything about Jones. That’s when she met Lynn Rainville, a research
professor in the humanities. Ms. Rainville is director of the Tusculum
Institute, which she helped create in 2008 to research and preserve
local history. For the previous 15 years, she had been doing just the
opposite of Ms. Rosson — tracing Jones’s descendants to find out where
they ended up.
"It was a fluke," Ms. Rosson says of meeting Ms. Rainville. "We had
long, crazy, amazing conversations that started us on this path together
to piece my great-grandfather’s connection together to the college." In
2014 the two researchers reopened the cabin with an exhibit to teach
students and the public about the college’s historical ties to slavery.
The collaboration between Ms. Rosson and Ms. Rainville was accidental,
sparked simply by their own curiosity. But the professor and the
genealogist are by no means alone. As more institutions grapple with
their own thorny histories, a growing number of scholars are digging
into public history and raising questions about colleges and
universities’ responsibility to acknowledge and explain those links to
slavery and racism.
That represents a shift in scholarly thinking, says Kirt von Daacke, an
assistant dean and associate professor of history at the University of
Virginia. "Scholars haven’t been deeply involved in micro-institutional
history," he says. "They see it generally as a bit of navel-gazing, but
they think it’s great for students to do."
A ‘Living Laboratory’
Since Brown University took major steps in the early 2000s to explain
its connection to the Atlantic slave trade, more scholars have felt an
urge to investigate institutional histories. Now, with the escalation of
student activism on race and the national influence of the Black Lives
Matter protest movement, scholarly interest has reached a "critical
mass," Mr. von Daacke says.
At UVa, efforts to dig into the university’s complicated racial past
sprang from a desire among professors to see the campus as a "living
laboratory." Professors across humanities disciplines sent their
students to the archives to learn to conduct research. In some cases
they discovered a deeper history that they felt the college should address.
Elsewhere, high-profile cases of colleges’ reckoning with their racially
fraught pasts have drawn considerable news-media attention. Yale and
Princeton made controversial decisions this year to keep names tied to
slavery and racism on their buildings. Many universities and colleges
across the South, such as the University of Mississippi, have debated —
or are still debating — whether to remove Confederate statues on their
campuses or to add context with plaques.
Those cases have given many administrators a new interest in their
institutions’ pasts — partly out of sympathy for students’ demands for
greater transparency, and partly to forestall potential protests.
"Faculty and students push for change and suddenly have gotten more
traction," Mr. von Daacke says. "Everyone is saying, If we do this now,
we may avoid protests."
In some cases, administrators’ heightened attention has given new
validation and influence to scholars who study their institution’s
histories. But that recognition doesn’t always come right away.
Several years ago Sven Beckert, a professor of history at Harvard,
worked with students to publish a booklet about notable locations on the
university’s campus, such as the president’s house, where slaveholding
presidents once resided. After discovering some of that history, Mr.
Beckert expected administrators to take some sort of action to address
that piece of the institution’s past.
But few responded to his findings — until the issue collided with the
growing national conversation. Last summer the university’s president
asked Mr. Beckert to suggest how Harvard could add to the dialogue. With
the help of a colleague, he began organizing what will be one of the
first conferences devoted to the subject of colleges and universities
studying slavery. Harvard will host the conference in March 2017.
"It’s only a question of time," he says, "until all Northern
institutions, or all throughout the country, will in some ways have to
look into this history."
‘Reworking Its History’
When Rhondda R. Thomas arrived at Clemson University, she heard rumors
that convict laborers had built the institution on top of the plantation
of John C. Calhoun, the 19th-century U.S. senator and vice president who
was one of slavery’s most zealous advocates. But no one seemed to know
who the laborers were or how many of them lived on the South Carolina
Ms. Thomas, an associate professor of English, thought there may have
been 50 workers, mostly African-American. But as she dove into the
archives this past spring with a small team of undergraduates, they
uncovered more than 750 names. One student working on the project even
found her own name, and discovered it was an ancestor.
Ms. Thomas is continuing to comb the data to learn about the lives of
those laborers. She also now sits on a committee that aims to
acknowledge and explain the institution’s past connection to racism and
“Around the country all universities who have this history have to ask
the question, What are we going to do about it?” "It’s reworking its
history," she says. "Around the country all universities who have this
history have to ask the question, What are we going to do about it?"
Ms. Thomas says some members of the committee hesitated to "go down that
road," but Clemson has since taken many steps to teach about its past.
Several months ago the university put up historical markers to show
where imprisoned black laborers and Native Americans once lived.
In many cases institutions’ links to slavery aren’t as well known. And
smaller institutions have fewer resources with which to revise outdated
books of campus history. It has not always been a priority for those
universities and colleges to look into the meaning of historical
locations on their campuses, says Mr. von Daacke.
But as the national conversation builds, he says, many institutions are
taking small, symbolic steps to address campus history before protests
arise. Some are joining new consortiums such as Universities Studying
Slavery, which UVa created in 2015. The consortium, made up of more that
20 universities and colleges in Virginia and other states, has convened
several times, allowing professors to share information about research
projects, about course syllabi, and about committees dedicated to
Ms. Thomas and Ms. Rainville are also seeking to help other institutions
research and acknowledge their tangled pasts. They are part of a working
group, convened by the National Council on Public History, of 19
professors across the country who are investigating their institutions’
historical ties to slavery, racism, sexism, and other social ills. Among
the group’s goals is to create a database of syllabi that teach students
to research their institutions’ histories.
The network has been particularly helpful for smaller institutions like
Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College, which doesn’t have the resources to
form a full committee of institutional historians devoted to the work.
The model that worked for Brown University doesn’t work for everyone,
says Monica L. Mercado, a postdoctoral fellow at Bryn Mawr.
At Bryn Mawr, after what Ms. Mercado calls "troubling incidents on
campus" — including a Confederate flag tacked to a dormitory wall — two
undergraduates tackled an independent-study project with her. They
designed "Black at Bryn Mawr," a 90-minute walking tour of notable
locations of African-American history on the campus, modeled after the
"Black and Blue" tour at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The students who developed the tour have now graduated, and Ms. Mercado
will leave her post within the month to accept a full-time position at
Abigail L. Perkiss, an associate professor of history at Kean
University, recently began teaching an upper-level seminar about
African-American history on the New Jersey campus. In the spring she had
the students Skype with Ms. Mercado to learn about projects at other
colleges, and then she sent those students around the campus to do their
For the commuter school, which is made up largely of nontraditional and
minority students, the research was emotionally difficult: Students
discovered a history in stark contrast to the university’s current
diversity-driven mission. Even its name imparted a lesson. The Kean
family, who lived on the land in the 1800s, owned slaves.
“Faculty and students push for change and suddenly have gotten more
traction. Everyone is saying, If we do this now, we may avoid protests.”
The class also created a walking tour from its findings, and
administrators supported the project. But as Ms. Perkiss prepares to go
on sabbatical next year, she worries whether there will be momentum when
she returns to develop the tour into a permanent feature.
In the meantime, scholars like Ms. Rainville, at Sweet Briar, are
uncovering significant new information about their colleges. Ms.
Rainville, who studies the history of African-Americans on the
plantation and in Virginia, estimates that about 25 to 30 percent of
black workers at the college can trace back their ancestry to those
enslaved on the plantation.
When Ms. Rainville began teaching anthropology at Sweet Briar as an
adjunct professor, in 2001, she didn’t plan to stay for more than a
semester or two. But as she began to understand the vibrant antebellum
landscape, she was bothered by her own lack of knowledge about what had
She knew the romanticized explanation of the college’s founding — how a
grieving mother created it in her daughter’s memory — but she wanted the
full story. So she started using her courses to push past what she calls
a sort of Gone With the Wind mentality of campus history. She began to
look at the campus as a "built-in laboratory."
"If you are someone who studies history or material culture, this is
history that is still alive," she says. "How could you ignore it?"
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