Studying Slavery’s Legacy in Education

studying slavery
The University of Virginia serves as the hom base of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. (Image credit: Photo by Dan Addison, University of Virginia Communications)

Education institutions are slowly coming to grips with their legacies of slavery and racism. Since 2016, nearly 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. and internationally, along with a handful of private K-12 schools, have joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. 

Members of the consortium share best practices and guiding principles about truth-telling projects addressing human bondage and racism in institutional histories. Member schools are all committed to research, acknowledgment, and atonement regarding institutional ties to the slave trade, to enslavement on campus or abroad, and to enduring racism in school history and practice.

To do this, member institutions utilize technology to digitize old documents and create multimedia experiences to help bring sometimes obscure stories of slavery and racism to light.

Kirt von Daacke is the consortium’s managing director, a professor of history, and assistant dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia (UVA), which serves as the home base of the consortium. All educators and institutions are welcome to join the Universities Studying Slavery consortium and collaboratively research their institution’s historic connections to slavery and racism, he says. 

Studying Slavery in Education: Don’t Go it Alone  

Von Daccke’s first advice for educators looking to explore their institution’s relationship to slavery and racism is to reach out to him through the Universities Studying Slavery consortium website.

The consortium grew out of the President’s Commission on Slavery at the University of Virginia, which began its work more than a decade ago. “We were learning a lot from the very small number of universities who had done this work before us,” says von Daccke, who was co-chair of the commission. 

The experience encouraged the commission members to work with other universities and eventually the USS consortium was born. New members learn from existing members and also bring important new ideas and insights to the group, von Daccke says. 

The exchange of ideas ranges from strategies for overcoming highly political debates around this type of work to strategies for working around more mundane aspects of an institution's bureaucracy. For example, something as simple as putting a plaque on a building to highlight an aspect of campus history can be complicated at a college. “To put a sign on a building might require the Board of Trustees' approval, and that enters you into a really long process,” von Daccke says. “How do you navigate that? Well, in some schools, it turns out, if you are just putting a sign in the ground – dropping two posts in the ground and putting an interpretive panel on it – that requires the money to do that and a conversation with facilities. It doesn't require Board approval.” 

Look Closely at Your Institution’s History  

An educational institution’s ties to slavery are not always intuitive. Scotland was home to only a few dozen slaves throughout the trans-Atlantic slave era, but researchers at the University of Glasgow discovered that Scottish slave traders had helped fund the university.  “For them [it’s] not a story about slavery in Glasgow, [it’s] a story about this Atlantic world that they participate in,” von Daccke says. 

Other schools founded after the Civil War have been built on former plantations or flourished due to systemic problems that persist largely because of slavery. “I don't think founding date gets you to what story you have to tell,” von Daccke says. Some institutions in the consortium are also looking at other forms of racism, such as exclusionary practices aimed at Native Americans. 

Colleges and universities across the globe are members, as are several private schools. Public schools would be welcome in the consortium, but participation is more difficult due to curriculum requirements, political considerations, and more limited resources in general, von Daccke says. 

Collaborate With Your Community  

Universities do not always have good relationships with their communities. “They're often, despite their best intentions, not great neighbors,” von Daacke says. “Universities slowly expand and gobble up the property and impinge on surrounding neighborhoods.” 

Education leaders doing this type of research need to break down the barriers between gown and town. “If this is about how do we tell the story of say, Black Charlottesville, I might have done a lot of research, but I shouldn't feel comfortable going out and doing that in public without having actually consulted and listened to our constituents, our neighbors,” von Daacke says. 

The consortium helps provide its members with best practices for doing this type of work while community feedback guides the consortium. “When we started, our community told us, ‘You can't talk about this as if this ended in 1865,’” von Daacke says. “Yes, slavery ended, but the larger systemic issues that that world created have afterlives that really trace all the way to the present.” 

This feedback has led member institutions to focus on making their communities better and to explore a variety of programs aimed at atonement and promoting equity. For instance, the consortium members have discussed trying to provide some form of support to Historically Black Colleges and Universities in addition to localized efforts at each institution. 

von Daacke expects this type of work to become more of a focus of the consortium going forward. “In the next couple of years, this will be more than a support group and sharing and learning space, and become a more active collaborative doing space,” he says.

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.