In teaching about slavery, I often ask my students to imagine themselves as college professors during different decades—the 1920s, the 1950s, the 1970s, the 1990s, and today. I query them as to the required reading they would assign and have them explain their choice of the representative authoritative text in each decade. This exercise of identifying historiographic trends in slavery scholarship reveals dramatic shifts in findings, assumptions, sources, and methodologies over time. Reflecting upon my own education, I witnessed firsthand the magnitude of two such shifts. As an undergraduate in the late 1960s, I read Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956), which by then had thoroughly toppled the nearly four-decades-long canonical text American Negro Slavery (1918) by Ulrich B. Phillips. Like the intervening years between the two publications, slavery studies were “a-changin’,” to borrow from the title of the 1964 song by Bob Dylan. According to Phillips’s interpretation, mostly docile, happy slaves worked under benevolent masters in a plantation system that he analogized to a training school for civilization. This interpretation was discredited in the 1950s as the civil rights movement and the federal government were simultaneously dismantling the legal doctrine of “separate but equal.” Kenneth Stampp, Stanley Elkins, and other historians of that era overturned the “happy slave” image by portraying instead overwhelming victimization of human chattel who were bereft of positive self-consciousness, cultural traditions, and family heritage.
I was a graduate student in the 1970s and early 1980s when Black Power and racial pride on the part of African Americans made possible a wholly new intellectual vision—one attentive to the voices of slaves themselves. While not oblivious to oppression, slavery historians in the last quarter of the twentieth century emphasized slaves’ overt and everyday forms of resistance, resilience, cultural resources such as religion and song, kinship bonds, gender relations, and sense of community. Despite the scholarly differences and disagreements in perspective and emphasis among this cohort of historians, their overall impact served to challenge the dominant narrative and ultimately refuted the imagery of Sambo-like victims. Through new sources and analytical frame-works, they set the foundation for twenty-first-century historians to delve ever more deeply into such topics as gender and family, the domestic slave trade and capitalism, health, the role of the law, and slavery’s distinctiveness over time and place.
When thinking about the tremendous amount of scholarship published on the subject of slavery for over a century, I find it astounding that slavery continues to be an exceptionally verdant field of study. This is especially true of the history of slavery in regard to universities, as evidenced by the emergence of related conferences, monographs, courses, memorialization projects, and social activism. Certainly, the essays in this volume, which grew out of a conference at Emory University in February 2011, present new ways to think and write about slavery. Together, their historiographical intervention signals a new scholarly direction and can even be said to constitute a new field of slavery studies for the twenty-first century. I make this claim of a new field for several reasons.
First, the focus on slavery and the university affirms the presence of slaves on university campuses in the South and North. Slaves were owned by institutions of higher learning. The plight of institutional slaves, as in the case of slaves owned by Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and the College of William and Mary, along with the implications of their treatment, purchase, and sale, has only recently come to light. Research into the slave presence on campuses also makes visible the black men, women, and children who were recognized as the personal property of university presidents, faculty, and wealthy students who brought their slaves along to serve them. In some instances, the university setting exposed a slave to multiple voices of command and thus to the controlling desires of many masters. Nor was the presence of slaves in the university confined to a specific geographic region. Harvard University in New England, Georgetown in the nation’s capital, William and Mary in the upper South, and the University of Alabama in the lower South all had slaves.
The efforts to acknowledge and recover the slave presence at institutions of learning have disclosed new sources in many unexplored places: the archives of business, medical, and law schools; the correspondence and records of school presidents, boards of trustees, faculty, and students; and petitions by slaves. Equally important, the empirical findings provide extraordinary windows onto the black lives formerly hidden from history. In April 2016 President Drew Faust of Harvard unveiled a plaque, engraved with the names of four slaves, who lived and worked for two of the school’s presidents in the eighteenth century. Faust referred to the discovery of the identities of the slaves later in an interview in the Harvard Gazette on February 28, 2017, and in anticipation of Harvard’s own upcoming March 2017 conference on slavery and universities. She stated: “One of the things happening now is that archivists, who have never looked for these findings, are finding them in odd places. Titus, one of the enslaved persons from Wadsworth House, didn’t leave extensive personal papers … but if you dig around you can find property records, you can find baptismal records.”
Second, the unique focus on slavery’s legacy in academia contributes richly to the history of higher education in the United States and abroad. Scholars now investigate the financial returns from slavery and the slave trade in connection to the rise of endowments for colleges and universities such as Brown and Harvard. Ideas about racial slavery figured significantly in the role of the university in the production of knowledge, curriculum development, faculty research and scholarship, and students’ coursework and extracurricular activities. The new field of slavery and universities thus calls for greater analysis of the ripple effect of ideas and information taught in American colleges, universities, and seminaries. Ethnologist Samuel G. Morton at the University of Pennsylvania and the naturalist Louis Agassiz at Harvard, for example, published works on polygenesis—the theory of racially different human origins—to a wide readership. Morton’s lectures and books influenced the thinking of Agassiz; both scholars described people of African descent as anatomically and mentally inferior to whites. Morton’s Crania Americana (1839) and Crania Aegyptiaca (1844) lent academic validity to racial slavery. In the South, the College of William and Mary proved to be a virtual proslavery think tank. Thomas R. Dew, chair of political law at William and Mary in 1827 and the school’s president from 1836 until his death in 1846, mixed religious justification with political economy. “We cannot get rid of slavery,” Dew proclaimed, “without producing a greater injury to both the masters and slaves, there is no rule of conscience or revealed law of God which can condemn us.”1 Such pronouncements were integral to the knowledge imparted through higher education, and they were quoted extensively by influential southern and northern judges, physicians, ministers, literary figures, and statesmen. Studied in the context of the curriculum of universities and students’ lecture notes, slavery’s more complex, often obscure involvement in American institutional life and memory becomes increasingly apparent. The academy profoundly influenced the American legal system. Judicial opinions involving slavery or race relations often incorporated such language as “ordained by God and Nature.” Judges also incorporated scientific findings and other academic expertise into their rulings. The lectures and writings of social scientists, natural scientists, economists, philosophers, and theologians gave legitimacy to slavery as an institution and to prohibitions against racial mixture.
The field of slavery and the university also provides deeper insight into students’ thinking and their activities as members of literary societies and debate teams. In the years leading up to the Civil War, topics related to slavery and states’ rights served to hone Emory students’ debating skills. Perhaps the earliest recorded debate between college students, however, occurred at Harvard University’s commencement in 1773, when two graduating seniors took opposite sides on the question of the legality of enslaving Africans. The antislavery proponent, Eliphalet Pearson, observed: “I confess, it is a matter of painful astonishment, that in this enlightened age and land, where the principles of natural and civil Liberty, and consequently the natural rights of mankind are so generally understood, the case of these unhappy Africans should gain no more attention; that those who are so readily disposed to urge the principles of natural equality in defense of their own Liberties, should, with so little reluctance, continue to exert a power, by the operation of which they are so flagrantly contradicted.” The proslavery advocate, Theodore Parsons, presented the rebuttal, asserting that it was more important to respect the happiness of the larger community, which had established and benefited from the slavery laws: “Such is the nature of society, that it requires various degrees of authority and subordination; and while the universal rule of right, the happiness of the whole, allows greater degrees of Liberty to some, the same immutable law suffers it to be enjoyed only in less degrees by others.”2
Finally, this emerging new field of slavery studies offers innovative pedagogies for encouraging discussion of difficult subject matter. As campus protests and news articles attest, the long shadow of slavery in the history of American educational institutions has become more evident, causing those very institutions to become targets for transformative redress. Scholarly collaboration, activity-based learning, and community-oriented networks inside and outside the academy have brought together persons from across disciplines (history, law, business, medicine, literature, art, and architecture), from across private and public universities, and from sites of academic and public history (including library archives, burial grounds, museums, historic homes, and slave quarters, e.g., the still extant Royall House and its connection to the Harvard Law School). This effort joins a growing body of scholarship that transcends the traditional focus on the South and gives the study of slavery a national, even international, relevance. Rigorous research, constructive dialogue, innovative teaching, and memorialization by means of plaques, artwork, conferences, and publications have afforded a way to validate and consolidate a variety of perspectives that help us to discern what is both valuable and at stake for contemporary scholarship, coursework, and even politics. And for those who thought that nothing new could be written, slavery’s haunting legacy in the academy has yet more stories to tell.
1. For the quoted passage and an analysis of Thomas R. Dew’s views on slavery, see Albert L. Brophy, “Considering William and Mary’s History with Slavery: The Case of Thomas Roderick Dew,” William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal 16, no. 4 (2008): 1130n258.
2. A Forensic Dispute on the Legality of Enslaving the Africans, Held at the Public Commencement in Cambridge, New England, July 21st, 1773. By Two Candidates for the Bachelor’s Degree (Boston: Printed by John Boyle for Thomas Leveret, 1773), 4–5, 7, http://name.umdl.umich.edu/N10168.0001.001.