We are so glad to start off 2024 with news that the University of Alabama, which has been hard at work completing an institutional research project and website on the history of enslaved people at UA for the past few years, has completed its work, released the website, and joined Universities Studying Slavery, becoming the third school in the state to sign on (Athens State University & Stillman College). The consortium presently includes over one hundred schools in six countries, all having committed to projects examining slavery and racism in institutional pasts. One of the joys of this work is the ways in which these schools create new knowledge, educate their students, and learn from one another about how fearlessly following the truth wherever it may lead is a hallmark of responsible higher education research and teaching.
We welcome with open arms the University of Alabama and are eager to share details about the genesis and history of their project. The information and events on the UA website highlight information about the enslaved people at The University of Alabama and key moments related to the history of slavery at the campus and alongside important milestones in United States history. As with so many other university programs, there’s a longer prequel of work on campus to get to this moment. For UA, the journey began some two decades ago.
In 2004, the Faculty Senate at The University of Alabama passed a resolution “Acknowledging and Apologizing for the History of Slavery at The University of Alabama.” Following a further charge by the Faculty Senate in 2018, the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion established a Task Force for Studying Race, Slavery, and Civil Rights at UA.
During the academic year 2021-2022 the Task Force Research Group completed a comprehensive assessment of University of Alabama Administration Records for the period up to 1865. That research team was led by Associate Professor of History Jenny Shaw and included Katharine Buckley (M.A. student in Library and Information Studies), Briana Weaver (Ph.D. student in History), Valery West (M.A. student in Gender and Race Studies).
Part of the project has been to ensure that all materials pertaining to slavery at the university are identified. Another crucial goal has been to transcribe the contents of the main record sets from this time including President Basil Manly’s diaries, President Landon Garland’s letterbooks, the Faculty Minutes, and the collection most commonly referred to as the “slave receipts.” Most important of all, however, was identifying as many of the enslaved individuals who labored on UA’s campus, or who were enslaved by faculty and college presidents, as possible and entering those names, and the records associated with them, in a database.
The materials presented on the History of Enslaved People at UA website are not comprehensive. Dedicated faculty and students are still in the process of researching the lives of many of the enslaved people identified in the records. Updating and revising the database is an ongoing process. Although the work thus far is as accurate as possible, some unintentional errors in some of the transcriptions or analysis may appear. New information may come to light to change understanding of some of these sources or knowledge of the enslaved individuals themselves. It is also important to note that while as much information as possible about those enslaved at UA is included, the information is almost entirely filtered through the words of white enslavers, or state institutions.
The History of Enslaved People at UA would not be possible without the decades of prior work on slavery at The University of Alabama. That work was undertaken most recently, by Alfred L. Brophy, Hilary N. Green (Hallowed Grounds Project and Hallowed Grounds Virtual Tour) and Joshua Rothman. Appreciation is also noted for the archivists and librarians at The University of Alabama Libraries Special Collections, especially Kate Matheny, for their expert guidance.
The work ongoing at the University of Alabama is yet another reminder that our collective work at universities in turning the tools of education and knowledge production onto our own institutions and built landscapes is not “difficult” work, but work that is inherently multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and publicly engaged. Better yet, it is work that remains central to each university’s mission, vision, and core values.
At UA, the school is committed to “undergraduate education that produces socially-conscious, ethical and well-rounded leaders who are grounded in their subject matter and capable of controlling their own destinies;” to “graduate education that is deeply vested in subject matter knowledge, professional content, research skills and creative activity;” and to an ethos of “public outreach and service that is held in the highest regard and fosters impactful public engagement to enhance the quality of life for the citizens of Alabama, the nation and the world.” Those are broad educational values shared by the vast majority of colleges and universities, and likely every school that has joined Universities Studying Slavery. The collective membership of USS looks forward to working with the University of Alabama as their work continues.