Universities, Slavery, and Public Memory—a new addition to the PCSU Curriculum

This spring, PCSU Co-Chair Kirt von Daacke, after participating in the UVA Center for Teaching Excellence’s intensive Course Design Institute, built a new seminar course, “Universities, Slavery, and Public Memory.” The seminar was restricted to first and second year students.

The physical traces of American slavery are hidden in plain sight all around us—in the fields in which enslaved people once labored, in the mansions, pavilions, hotels, and classrooms in which they labored for those who owned them, in the ruins of cottages, cellars, and attics where they raised their own families, and even in the often now overgrown and neglected graveyards where they were buried.

This new seminar asked students: Did you ever wonder why this history so often remains ignored and unacknowledged? Why might it be valuable for people, institutions, and the nation to revisit those painful aspects of our collective past? What do we as a society (or university) currently choose to commemorate or memorialize? What do those choices tell us about how we have imagined our history?

Using modern universities as case studies, the seminar worked together to see anew the ways in which slavery remains central to understanding the development of the United States politically, culturally, economically, and educationally in the nineteenth century. It also considered the ways in which that history still profoundly shapes the world we live in today. Thus, the seminar confronted other present concerns: How might universities (or institutions, nations, etc.) come to appropriately acknowledge this painful past? Who should universities consult as they consider appropriate memorialization? Do universities have an obligation to initiate a process of repair after grappling with acknowledgment?

As the class answered those questions together, they worked in teams to build digital media projects seeking to answer/address some of these questions, that think big about how a university should approach this (and why!), and share their ideas with a wider public audience.

The seminar started with key readings, including (but not limited to) selections from:

Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, eds., Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory.

Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums.

Kristin L. Gallas and James DeWolf Perry, eds., Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites.

Max van Balgooy, ed., Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites.

Jennifer Oast, Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680-1860.

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

The Center for Justice & Reconciliation‘s Restorative Justice tutorials.

As well as the reports & websites by Brown University, Harvard University, and Georgetown University.

After completing background readings, considering theoretical models, and assessing the work produced by other schools, the students began the long process of designing their own slate of initiatives. They used the University of Virginia as their model, but were entirely free to do whatever they wanted in terms of a slate of proposed initiatives. They only caveats were that what they proposed had to be supported by the course readings and, where appropriate, linked directly to a process of restorative justice (acknowledgement, atonement).

Next, they completed the Meet the Community Project, interviewing people from around the University as part of a process of reconsidering and re-imagining just what the “University community” is and who makes it up. The class worked on developing a standard set of questions and made sure that the interviewees made up a diverse set of voices from around the school. The interviews were all transcribed and shared with the class so that everyone could reflect on the interviewees’ responses.

The students then had to write about and reflect on their own positionality: Reflecting individually on what you learned in the Meet the Community Project, consider where you fit in the community. Interrogate your own position in the university community. How has your view of your own position and understanding of what constitutes the university community changed as a result of what you have learned so far in class? How do you think the legacies of slavery have shaped your own life?

The responses spoke to the power of the assignment. One student, expressing surprise that the university community was far more than students and faculty, noted that “13,362 full-time staff members do the ‘behind the scenes’ work, [often for] minimum wage,” and are part of the community. Another student came to see herself as a “stakeholder in the greater Charlottesville community…I still love this school…but after learning its dark history, I look at it from a different perspective.” One student pushed even further in reflecting on the decision to attend UVA: “By choosing a school with such a complex historical background that has aspects that are unequally shared, I unknowingly signed up for a job to hold my University and myself accountable for acknowledging those aspects that are less publicized [slavery and the lives/work of the enslaved].” Students even made connections to some of their other college experiences: “Through our seminar class, I realized that the poverty and struggle that I saw but didn’t fully understand [at the local elementary school where I did volunteer tutoring] is linked to the legacy that slavery has left” on the area.

Now that the class had begun to see how slavery is hidden in plain sight all around us, how our own world has been shaped by that past, and how communities may be structured very differently than we previously thought, they set to imagining that they were charged with designing a slate of events, activities, and the like for a university acknowledging its past and seeking some reconciliation. What kind of programming would you propose and why? With that question in mind, they worked in groups to create a sample program for a series of events (symposia, conferences, building naming/renaming, signage/plaques, interpretive center, documentary, community center, institute(s), statues, memorials, space naming/dedicating/renaming, teach-ins, poetry slams, and so on) for a university seeking to acknowledge past entanglement in slavery and engage in some form of public reconciliation. They were instructed to think big—the only limitations should be intellectual ones—they had to support programming ideas by linking them to the best theories and practices the seminar examined during the semester.

Here are the links to their final completed projects—they produced some amazingly thoughtful work!

The Hands that Built

The Key Tree Slavery and Reconciliation Program

Justice for an Enslaved Past

Reparative Initiatives for the University of Virginia

These website and projects have been shared with the entire President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (and shared publicly with the wider world). They serve as a reminder that our students are often powerful sources of inspiration, creativity, and agents for institutional change.

-Kirt von Daacke