Universities and Archives: The “Institutions and Communities” Panel

Universities and Archives: The “Institutions and Communities” Panel

The day of October 19th had already been an eventful one for those attending the Universities Studying Slavery conference and was showing no signs of slowing down. Delegates filed into the Acadia Room of the Marriott Harbourfront Hotel for a series of presentations on the topic of “Institutions and Communities.” Four panelists sat at a table in the front of the room awaiting their arrival; Mary T. Freeman, Thai Jones, Graham Nickerson, and Shirley Tillotson.

Mary T. Freeman began the panel by discussing the topic of “Politics in the Archives of Slavery and Abolition.” She focused on one event in particular, the tar and feathering of two Black students at the University of Maine. Other than a photograph showing the two men standing covered in tar and feathers in an animal pavilion, this event is missing from the university’s archives. Freeman had to look for outside sources to confirm what had happened, discovering that the president of the university had dismissed the event as a simple hazing.

Neither of the victims of the incident graduated. Freeman emphasized that historians must be resourceful in seeking to tell stories, especially in the absence of traditional text sources from archives.

Columbia University’s Dr. Thai Jones spoke on the topic of that university’s connections to slavery. Columbia has a shared history with the University of King’s College: King’s was originally founded in the state of New York before the American Revolution, when some of its founders immigrated to Nova Scotia alongside other Loyalists and founded a university by the same name there. Those who remained in the United States founded Columbia University. Columbia has a past that is entrenched in slavery. To reckon with this, a project entitled “The Columbia and Slavery Project” began. This is a student-led initiative, prompting students to create original research using archival sources. These students also engage in public history, making recommendations to university leaders on how to best respond to the institution’s past involvement with slavery and white supremacy.

Graham Nickerson’s presentation was entitled “Rethinking the Shelburne (Race) Riots: Exploring Community Perspectives.” He focused on what he called the “Black Loyalist myth.” When considering Black Loyalists, historians generally consider a series of events focusing on Birchtown. However, in doing so they fail to consider that there were many other communities of Black Loyalists, each of which was under stress as well. Thus, he argued, it is disingenuous to collapse on race and it should be couched as a regional problem. In order to do so, there should be work in removing imposed colonial boundaries to look at a holistic body of knowledge.

Dr. Shirley Tillotson is a name that is relatively well known at Dalhousie University, as well as King’s, for her involvement in the “Report on Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race” and in “King’s and Slavery: A Scholarly Inquiry.” Her discussion, “Race, Tax, and the Funding of Universities in Loyalist Nova Scotia” focused on aspects of this report, as well as her own research paper. She considered the importance of public revenue in university funding and where this revenue originates, focusing on two funds that were provided to both Dalhousie and Kings: the Arms Fund and the Castine Fund. These funds were primarily financed by products made with slave labour. In this way, the province of Nova Scotia’s business model required for its success that enslaved people be exploited in plantation agriculture.

Following these panels, the opportunity for questions was opened to the crowd. One delegate asked about the accessibility of archival sources, as well as the research done by the panelists and how they were making it available to the communities most impacted. Jones discussed the skill building of the program offered to students at Columbia in order to help them navigate the archives, suggesting that programs like these should be more widely available. As a history student and an African Nova Scotian myself, I found these panels inspiring. The work that is being done and has already been done is vast and impressive and there is always room for more discourse surrounding ways to reckon with revelations of the past. It is important that this conversation continues and that more become aware of it.

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