As the University of Maryland becomes a member of Universities Studying Slavery in July 2020, the country is witnessing another watershed moment in the aftermath of the ongoing murders of Black people. Monuments of slave owners are being removed, protests are demanding recognition and action against systemic racism, while academic organizations are crafting statements of solidarity and imagining ways to recommit to creating equitable, inclusive, and diverse spaces.
The 1856 Project (also known as Universities Studying Slavery at the University of Maryland) recognizes that the history of slavery is inextricably linked to the story of America and of the University of Maryland in particular. Continued investigation of the university’s connections to slavery will provide a blueprint for a richer understanding of generations of racialized trauma rooted in the institution.
In 2006, graduate student Herbert Brewer (now a history professor representing Morgan State University in USS) and Professor Ira Berlin, with the assistance of President C. D. Mote, Jr., established a history course that led to the publication “Knowing Our History: Slavery and the University of Maryland.” In that report, Berlin summarized the intimate relationship of slavery to the university, stating: “If slaves didn’t lay the bricks, they made the bricks. If they didn’t make the bricks, they drove the wagon that brought the bricks. If they didn’t drive the wagon, they built the wagon wheels.”
Calvert, the founder of the Maryland Agricultural College and a descendant of slave-owners, held 52 slaves in 1860, many of whom lived and worked on his Riversdale plantation, a portion of which forms a large section of the current UMD campus.2 The “Knowing Our History” report provides a foundation for the University of Maryland to build its work and to pursue a deeper, more prolonged analysis of UMD’s connection to slaveholders, the institution’s ties with the broader community, and how this history has shaped the culture of the school.
The University of Maryland’s 1856 project commits to providing a survey of documentation that will create a path toward restorative history, allowing for the institution to engage in the work of moral accountability and reconciliation. The 1856 Project will strengthen the university’s commitment to its values for diverse and inclusive spaces and provide a narrative of the University of Maryland’s history that embraces its past, stands firm in the challenges and achievements of its present, and lays the groundwork for a liberated future.
We are thrilled that the University of Maryland and its 1856 project are now part of the growing Universities Studying Slavery (USS) movement!