Historians of slavery are now looking at their own institutions

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Georgetown



As more institutions grapple with their own thorny histories, a growing number of scholars are digging into public history and raising questions about colleges and universities’ responsibility to acknowledge and explain those links to slavery and racism.

That represents a shift in scholarly thinking, says Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean and associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. "Scholars haven’t been deeply involved in micro-institutional history," he says. "They see it generally as a bit of navel-gazing, but they think it’s great for students to do."

Since Brown University took major steps in the early 2000s to explain its connection to the Atlantic slave trade, more scholars have felt an urge to investigate institutional histories. Now, with the escalation of student activism on race and the national influence of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, scholarly interest has reached a "critical mass," Mr. von Daacke says.

At UVa, efforts to dig into the university’s complicated racial past sprang from a desire among professors to see the campus as a "living laboratory." Professors across humanities disciplines sent their students to the archives to learn to conduct research. In some cases they discovered a deeper history that they felt the college should address.

Elsewhere, high-profile cases of colleges’ reckoning with their racially fraught pasts have drawn considerable news-media attention. Yale and Princeton made controversial decisions this year to keep names tied to slavery and racism on their buildings. Many universities and colleges across the South, such as the University of Mississippi, have debated — or are still debating — whether to remove Confederate statues on their campuses or to add context with plaques.

Those cases have given many administrators a new interest in their institutions’ pasts — partly out of sympathy for students’ demands for greater transparency, and partly to forestall potential protests. ...




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