The University of Maryland, College Park is the latest institution of higher education to announce plans to examine its ties to slavery, this time doing so with the help of students in a research course.
Next fall, Dr. Ira Berlin, Distinguished University Professor of U.S. history, African-American history and slavery, will lead a group of students in a two-semester research course, “Knowing Our History: African-American slavery in the University of Maryland.”
The first semester will focus on the history of slavery and training about 30 students to be “good historians of slavery,” says Berlin, adding that the second semester will “focus our skills and knowledge on our own backyard” by delving into UMD’s role in the slave trade.
The founder of UMD, Charles B. Calvert, was a slave owner and the university’s grounds were a part of his estate. The goal of the course is to find out what happened on UMD’s campus in relation to American slavery.
The course was born, in part, from America’s general interest in American society and slavery, Berlin says. With movies and museum exhibits dedicated to the issue of slavery, state legislatures debating over apologies, and the never-ending debate over reparations, it is clear that Americans are interested in the history of slavery in this country, he says.
The racial climate today, with the return of the noose as a symbol of racial intimidation and White college students partying in blackface and holding stereotypical themed parties, warrants a deeper understanding of race relations in this country, Berlin says.
“The issue of slavery comes up whenever we have a racial crises. When people become engaged in the issue of how White people and Black people relate to one another they go back to ground zero — the institution of slavery. Racial tensions always brings people back to the issue of slavery,” Berlin says.
“It’s always a good idea to know who you are, it’s good to know what kind of baggage we’ve inherited. It’s generally a healthy thing,” he says, although he makes no proclamations about how the university should respond to the findings.
In examining its ties to slavery, UMD follows in the steps of a Brown University committee that found that some of the university’s early benefactors were involved the slave trade and that the university benefited from their involvement. After the committee completed its report, Brown announced it would, among other things, create a $10-million target for an endowment for Providence Public Schools, explore how best to carry out a major research and teaching initiative on issues of slavery and justice; and continue and expand Brown’s academic partnerships with a number of historically Black colleges and universities.
“Since Brown completed its work, a few other universities have begun to do research on their own historical relationship to slavery. I think that’s very important and very healthy,” says Dr. James Campbell, chair of the steering committee and associate professor of Africana Studies and History.
“Universities are not sausage factories, they are particular institutions that profess particular values. They are truth-seeking, pursuing knowledge in every field. They are deeply attentive to their own histories, honoring forebears in the names they give to buildings and so forth. They are also places that insist on reasoned dialogue, on teaching students to examine and discuss in reasoned ways even the most difficult and unattractive issues. If institutions professing these values aren’t prepared to take an honest look at their past, it’s hard to imagine how any other institutions in our society will,” he says.
Other institutions to address its historical ties to slavery include the University of Virginia and the University of Alabama, both of which have publicly expressed regret over their role in slavery.
Taking a different approach, Emory University is in the third year of a five-year program, the Transforming Community Project (TCP), which seeks to generate an exchange of ideas, reflection and construction of the history of Emory’s involvement in slavery, segregation and integration.
Several racial incidents that occurred on campus in the fall of 2003 spurred conversations among faculty members about race relations at the university. These conversations continued throughout 2004 and focused on thinking of creative ways to talk about issues of diversity within the community. “The major question that came up was ‘What is Emory’s record in terms of race?’” says Dr. Leslie Harris, co-director of the TCP and an associate history professor.
One component of the TCP is the “Community Dialogues.” More than 1,000 community members participate in these small group conversations where participants have frank discussions about their racial experiences on campus and away from the university.
“As a historian of slavery, I am interested in slavery, but there are also more contemporary issues that need to be addressed,” Harris says. “This is why the TCP’s research doesn’t stop at the Emancipation Proclamation, but extends further to include the Civil Rights Era and other minorities’ experiences with the university. Slavery laid the foundation, it was only one piece in a long history of racial oppression in this country.”
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