Using Public Humanities to Reckon with the American University’s Ties to Slavery

During National Arts and Humanities Month, Humanities for All has been exploring how higher ed-based humanists are using the tools of public humanities and partnership to promote social and racial justice. In recent decades, many American colleges and universities have begun uncovering their historic support and involvement with the institution of slavery (and the ongoing denial of these linkages) as a way of mending a broken sense of trust between students, colleges, and the surrounding community.

These research efforts to uncover the presence of enslaved peoples on college campuses have validated what many suspected: slavery’s legacies continue to fund, name, and color the every day lives of students and community members. As Alex Carp writes for the New York Review

According to the surviving records, the first enslaved African in Massachusetts was the property of the schoolmaster of Harvard. Yale funded its first graduate-level courses and its first scholarship with the rents from a small slave plantation it owned in Rhode Island (the estate, in a stroke of historical irony, was named Whitehall). The scholarship’s first recipient went on to found Dartmouth, and a later grantee co-founded the College of New Jersey, known today as Princeton.

While much of this campus-based research has been compiled in archives and disseminated through traditional scholarly channels, some recent initiatives have also leaned on the methodological tools of public humanities to engage the surrounding community in the accountability process. These projects utilize community partnerships with local organizations, activists, and community members to interrogate how these legacies remain central to how campuses function as powerful institutions in the present.  

Recent public humanities projects from colleges and universities affiliated with the Universities Studying Slavery consortium demonstrate some of the creative ways public humanities and community partnership can address the American university’s ties to the institution of slavery.

At St. Louis University, the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project is working in partnership with the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province and the St. Louis African American History and Genealogy Society to collect family histories for surrounding community members. In acknowledgment of how enslaved laborers were used to fund and build St. Louis University, this cross-institutional family history collection effort moves from a desire to work with descendants of slavery touncover the truth of people’s stories, to honor their memories and heal relationships.”

At Dickinson College, the Dickinson and Slavery Project and the House Divided Project have turned their research exploring Dickinson’s ties to slavery into free K-12 teacher workshops and resources, digitized and publicly accessible archival collections, and in-person and online exhibitions curated by students from a freshman seminar on “Dickinson and Slavery.”  

At the University of Virginia, the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers acknowledges that UVA was built and maintained by 4,000 enslaved men, women, and children. The memorial features the marks and names of those enslaved peoples carved into granite and was designed with input from their descendants and Charlottesville community members. As the New York Times writes, this memorial seeks to turn “grief for a hidden past into a healing space.” 

At Harvard University, the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery initiative is partnering with the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts to study the Royall family’s ties to Harvard. As the only remaining free-standing slave quarters in the north, the Royall House and Slave Quarters is working with Harvard’s initiative to create new research projects centering the lives of enslaved people and also create collaborative public programming that draws parallels between slavery and the present moment. 

At the University of Mississippi, the Slavery Research Group is conducting an archaeological study to excavate the ground of Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home and National Historic Landmark, to find evidence of enslaved peoples during the pre-Faulkner era when the property belonged to Oxford settler and slaveholder (and funder of Unversity of Mississippi) Robert Sheegog. The University is also working in partnership with the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation and interested community members to discover and digitize maps in the National Archives that help identify several buildings that may have been used as living space for enslaved people and servants from the 1850s to the 1890s.  

Collectively, these projects point to a concerted effort to build community trust not just through a series of symbolic gestures acknowledging past sins but through a reinvestment in civic infrastructure, lifelong learning, and equitable partnership with local communities. For these colleges and universities, acknowledging their ties to slavery in the present has not only expanded their institutional capacity to provide engaged learning opportunities for students but also their ability to be a civic partner in their surrounding communities.

Read more about the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, and watch the Humanities for All website in the coming months for more project spotlights connected to slavery and the university. 


Photo Credit

Thumbnail image: Image courtesy of the Royall House and Slave Quarters.

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Social and Racial Justice