We said September 2023 would be an exciting month here at Universities Studying Slavery (USS) headquarters in Charlottesville, and we were not kidding. We have spent the past seven years in awe as school after school has reached out to us or attended conferences, seeking to connect with other schools doing the work of examining hard histories, and learn about guiding principles, best practices, and opportunities for sustained partnership. Over that time, we have watched as clusters of schools in specific regions have all joined in relatively rapid succession, then creating closer-knit regional communities within the USS family. In the Deep South along the Mississippi Delta, the USS consortium already includes Tougaloo College, the University of Mississippi, Southern University Law Center, and Tulane University. We are so glad to welcome Louisiana State University to the USS movement. LSU (main campus in Baton Rouge but inclusive of other campuses) makes it five schools within three hours of each other in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Founded in antebellum times, funded in part through the sale of indigenous lands, and located on campuses built on former plantations and indigenous lands throughout Louisiana, Louisiana State University has a lengthy involvement with slavery and indigenous peoples (timeline available at https://www.lib.lsu.edu/special/archives/historical-information).
Despite that long-standing, foundational relationship to slavery and indigenous peoples, the university lacks a comprehensive, detailed study of that aspect of its past, the need for which recent events have made inescapable. In 2020, a professor on the main campus in Baton Rouge rediscovered a plantation cemetery that contains the remains of enslaved people. Also in 2020, the publication of a national database revealed the relationship between the 1862 Morrill Act funding of land-grant universities like LSU and specific indigenous groups (https://www.landgrabu.org/). The 2016 founding of the consortium of Universities Studying Slavery also emphasizes the need for LSU to join more than a hundred other universities already engaged with this issue. Many other member universities have already published their reports about past relationships to slavery, including the University of Florida, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, Brown University, Harvard University, Rutgers University, Wake Forest University, Georgetown University, and others. And other members such as Tulane University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Georgia have begun the scholarship required to develop such a report. Always heartening to add yet another school to that list!
Individual faculty members at LSU have already been conducting some of the research necessary to develop such a report. After rediscovering the plantation cemetery, one secured a 2022-24 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to study and write a book about the plantation pasts of Southern university campuses, using the LSU Baton Rouge campus as a model case. Faculty members also secured funding in 2022 to purchase a Ground Penetrating Radar unit to further study the campus cemetery as well as a potential graveyard associated with a Black church located on campus during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods. A 2023 grant from a multidisciplinary, multi-institutional group of researchers studying indigenous people and land-grant universities in the South has produced a timeline of LSU’s role in that relationship. LSU faculty as well have been attending and actively participating in the conferences of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium since 2022 and Clemson’s Historic Cemeteries Research Symposium since 2021. Many other such projects require attention, such as studies of the plantation pasts of other campuses in the LSU system, research on the role of enslaved people in the construction of LSU’s antebellum campus in Pineville, genealogical research to locate and engage with the descendant communities of those once enslaved on the plantation that became campus, and tracing back LSU’s Morrill Act land scrip as a basis for establishing relationships with the descendant communities of the tribes dispossessed of their lands.
The LSU team rightly sees joining USS as facilitating coordination among LSU faculty members and students who would like to join a collective effort and engage with others at consortium universities engaged in similar efforts. The hundred-plus other members of the consortium applaud that and want LSU to know that the collaborative engagement across universities is the secret sauce in the many successful projects completed and ongoing. For LSU, the ultimate goal of such engagement is integration of individual research efforts into a detailed, comprehensive report on the university’s past relationships to race, including slavery and the dispossession of indigenous peoples. Such a report will enrich understanding of LSU’s origins, be integrated into the instruction of LSU students, provide a basis for planning going forward, and add to the consortium’s collective knowledge about the roles of slavery, race, and dispossession in both university and American history. Again, we are excited to officially welcome the LSU team to the USS movement.