Ole Miss is preparing to investigate the university’s ties to slavery

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tags: slavery, Ole Miss



Brian Hamilton is Interim Managing Editor of Edge Effects. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, writing a dissertation entitled “Cotton’s Keepers: Black Agricultural Expertise in Slavery and Freedom.” His research took him to the island in Mississippi where President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and his brother once enslaved thousands of people, a story he recounts here. Hamilton earned his B.A. at Columbia University, where the history faculty now offer an annual undergraduate seminar on the university’s institutional links to slavery. TwitterContact.

In the last fifteen years, slavery has gone to college. Or, rather, colleges and universities have taken themselves back to school. Initiatives at several of the nation’s oldest, most elite institutions have sought to uncover their historical entanglements with slavery, which went overlooked—often willfully—for generations. The efforts date to 2003, when Brown University President Ruth Simmons established a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which delivered a bombshell report three years later. Similar initiatives followed at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, Rutgers University, the College of William & Mary, and elsewhere. Media attention swelled following the 2013 publication of historian Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, and swelled again last year after the New York Times reportedthat, in 1838, Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved people to keep itself afloat. Now, onto this stage, enters Ole Miss.

That the school’s nickname draws criticism for fostering antebellum nostalgia makes one question whether the University of Mississippi really requires the same wake-up call needed at Ivy League schools in northern states whose citizens have a very long tradition of imagining away their regional history of slavery. Yes it does, says Dr. Jeffrey Jackson and Dr. Charles Ross, co-chairs of the University of Mississippi Slavery Research Group. When we spoke on the phone on March 15, they made clear that even in the Deep South, on a campus that was itself built alongside slave plantations, the stories of enslaved people are still very difficult to recover and collective amnesia is pervasive. But, with a diverse group of colleagues beginning both figurative and literal excavations of the University’s history, Jackson and Ross intend to confront historical erasures and create a campus landscape where the past is present.

Brian Hamilton: Would you sketch out the origins of your group? How did it come to be and what led you both to get involved?

Charles Ross: In 2012, following the reelection of Barack Obama, we had an incident on our campus in which students who had a difference of opinion over Mitt Romney and Obama spilled out during election night. It was very contentious and, as a result, the Chancellor convened a couple of committees that decided that there needed to be more research looking at the history of race on our campus.

Jeffrey Jackson: We have this ongoing cycle of racist incidents that occur, and the university tries to figure out why these things happen and acts a little more surprised than it should, being that these things happen on most college campuses, but particularly here at the University of Mississippi with our history of white supremacy. Chuck and I have been involved over the years on this. We first met working on Black History Month and then the 40th and 50th anniversaries of James Meredith’s [matriculation as the University’s first African American student]. After that 2012 incident we, as faculty, felt we needed to do more. So we were having lunch and heard an NPR story with Craig Steven Wilder talking about Ebony and Ivy. And we said, why haven’t we done a good job telling our own story with regard to slavery? That’s a story we should all know, and yet we don’t. So Chuck called Craig up on the phone, and he was very hospitable and wanted to come down. We thought we might get 15 or 20 faculty who were interested in joining a reading group. We got 55. After reading the book and seeing what a pivotal role slavery played in the history of American universities and colleges, it was like a green light. Everyone unanimously agreed we needed to continue this.

CR: Craig rode back to the Memphis airport with Jeff and me, and he gave us some great ideas about what we should do. From there, we decided to turn this reading group into a research group, and from there it’s rolled. We’ve hired graduate students. We’ve brought in experts from a wide array of perspectives. We became involved with a consortium at the University of Virginia. Jeff and I went to Harvard this past spring for a great conference. All of this has snowballed into something very positive. Our group is made up of individuals from various disciplines—not only faculty, but staff people, librarians, and administrators. We’ve got great plans for an archaeological dig on the grounds of the university, as well as a conference looking at Faulkner’s relationship with slavery. And we’re trying to position ourselves to do something in 2019, when ideally the United States will begin to acknowledge the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving in America.






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