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. 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 currently choose to commemorate or memorialize? What do those choices tell us about how we have imagined our history?
Using modern universities, including our own, as case studies, this class (UVA HIUS 1501, Universities, Slavery, and Public Memory, Spring 2017) has worked together to see anew the ways in which slavery remains central to understanding the development of the United States (and UVA) politically, culturally, economically, and educationally in the nineteenth century. Universities, as a combination of historical artifact, memorialized landscape (everything at a University seemingly memorializes something or someone, down to even benches and trees), and currently peopled environment, represent excellent microcosms for us to seek answers to those questions above.
We have also considered the ways in which that history still profoundly shapes the world we live in today. Thus, we confront 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?
What follows on this page is our team’s digital media project that seeks to answer some of these questions and think big about how a university should approach this (and why!). What follows is our team’s digital project.