Universities Studying Slavery Fall Symposium — Presidential Plenary

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Thursday October 25, 2018, 9:00am
Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, MS

I’m honored to serve on this panel today, especially with such distinguished fellow panelists. I’d like to thank the organizers for hosting this meeting, especially the University of Mississippi Slavery Research Group, whose important work on our campus embodies the principled inquiry that sits at the core of academic freedom. I’d also like to thank Dr. Hogan for inviting me to participate. It’s a tremendous opportunity to advance the conversation about an historical matter of great import to our institutions, our state, and the nation.

Today, I would like to provide a brief history of the University of Mississippi in the context of our relationship with historical slavery. In addition, I’ll share some thoughts about our recent efforts to contextualize historical sites with markers on our campus.

Starting with the founding of the University of Mississippi in 1848, many of the most significant historical moments in the institution’s history are tied to slavery, race, and segregation. In Dr. David Sansing’s history of the university published in honor of the university’s sesquicentennial, he wrote about this aspect and how it informed the creation of the university:

As the sectional crisis deepened and the agitation over slavery intensified, Mississippians developed a siege mentality, formed a closed society, and concluded, “Those opposed to us in principle cannot be entrusted with the education of our sons and daughters.” The founders of the state university understood that education is “the process by which a culture transmits itself across the generations.”
Fast forward to 1962, when a federal appeals court ordered the University of Mississippi to admit its first African-American student, James Meredith. Upon his arrival, a mob of more than 2,000 people rioted, and two people were killed.

As recently as 2014, the university again made national headlines when two former students placed a noose and a flag containing the Confederate battle emblem on the statue that honors James Meredith on the Oxford campus. And there are numerous other examples throughout our history.

While these incidents are not easy to discuss, we remain committed to honest and open dialogue about our distinct and difficult history on slavery, race, and segregation. In fact, as an educational institution, we have a responsibility to teach and foster learning, especially from parts of our history that are painful. And to move forward, we must neither hide from, nor hide, the problems of our past.

We have embraced that approach while, at the same time, making sustained, substantial, and measurable progress toward fostering a more diverse and inclusive campus environment. Today, nearly 24 percent of our students are people of color. One out of every eight UM students is African-American, and the latest ranking showed our percentage of African-American enrollment second-highest among SEC institutions. There is still much to do, and we can do better.

In 2014, the university adopted an action plan, which took an earnest and hard look at how to address race and related issues, as well as how to make our campuses more welcoming and inclusive.

Today, I want to share with you some of our recent efforts that specifically address “offering more history, putting the past into context, telling more of the story of Mississippi’s struggles with slavery, secession, segregation, and their aftermath,” and to do so “without attempts to erase history, even some difficult history.”

The Confederate statue at the entrance to the Oxford campus was one of the first physical sites to be contextualized. The stated purpose of the statue was to honor fallen local Confederate soldiers, but such monuments were often used to promote the “Lost Cause” ideology founded in white supremacy and aimed at the oppression of African-Americans. After extensive review and input, an updated plaque explaining the statue’s place in history was added to the site. The plaque, in honest and forthright language, explains that the monument reminds us:

… that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people. This historic statue is a reminder of the university’s divisive past. Today, the University of Mississippi draws from that past a continuing commitment to open its hallowed halls to all who seek truth, knowledge, and wisdom.
In addition to the statue, we undertook a concerted effort via a formal committee — the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context — to recommend and design physical sites on the Oxford campus that should be contextualized, so as to explain the environment in which they were created or named. In the final report, submitted in July 2017, the committee shared these eloquent words about their work:

Contextualizing the campus reminds us of the enormity and complexity of our shared past. Done correctly, and therefore carefully, contextualization is an additive process, not a subtractive one. The past merits scrutiny, even as it commands respect. Such an engagement with our collective past seeks to clarify, not to obscure. But while facing the past with humility, contextualization calls for honesty on behalf of all who will in the future develop their own relationships with the University. Contextualization therefore looks backward and forward simultaneously, working toward a just and faithful balance between humility and honesty. Those who undertake such work must be mindful of being stewards, transmitting an imperfect knowledge of the past to the imagined understanding of the future.
As a result of this deliberate, thoughtful, and academically-focused endeavor, this past spring, we installed 6 plaques recognizing 9 sites across campus. One of the plaques notes the contributions of enslaved laborers and includes the names of a number of the slaves who performed work at the university. Additionally, the plaque for enslaved laborers includes the following candid language:

Slavery was a system underpinned by exploitation and violence, and they also suffered beatings and other abuses documented in University records. The University of Mississippi today honors the legacy of these enslaved individuals and acknowledges the injustices under which they lived and labored.
These plaques are daily reminders of our obligation to learn from the past and commit to an inclusive future.

Today, I would also like to share an update with you on two additional projects related to our continuing work of contextualizing our campus. Dr. John Neff is leading our efforts on two projects regarding the intersections between the American Civil War and the University, the town of Oxford, and Lafayette County. Those stories, previously untold on our campus, reveal the history of black men and white men … men who wore blue and gray.

Research has presented a new understanding of the cemetery on our campus as well as the hospital that once occupied the campus. A new archeological survey will reveal a more definitive number of graves than previously known. Historical research has also expanded our understanding of who may lie buried in those grounds. What was once a list of about 130 names believed to be interred has now grown to more than 340, largely through the painstaking examination of military service records. The discovery of a hospital register stored in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., will now give us new insight to the men who were cared for on our campus.

We are also undertaking new research into the lives of African-American men of Lafayette County – enslaved men who left the land of their birth to join the Union Army as part of the U.S.C.T., the United States Colored Troops. To date, 17 names have been discovered, with another 26 believed to also have joined from the county. And the same painstaking research into their military service records will hopefully yield the stories of the lives and service. Eventually, our intent is to memorialize those men on our campus.

Both projects have much yet to accomplish, but we are encouraged by our progress to date. We look forward to the day when we will be able to tell the full history of our campus, town, and county, with all the richness and diversity that characterizes our shared past.

In addition to these efforts I’ve highlighted today, work continues naturally as part of the ongoing inquiry and study conducted at UM by faculty, staff, and students through our academic departments and schools and, in particular, through the university’s Slavery Research Group. You will hear from many of our scholars over the next two days.

We recognize that the university’s history provides not only a larger responsibility for providing leadership on issues related to slavery, race, and segregation, but also a larger opportunity. We continue to engage in profoundly important dialogue to more fully understand and articulate our historical truths — so that we can learn from that past and chart a bold course forward for our university and all those we serve.

In closing, I would like to share an excerpt from powerful remarks given by Dr. Neff at the ceremony to unveil the plaques on our campus this past spring. His stirring words get to the heart of why this work matters:

… we are the sum of all our decisions, good and bad, all of those crossroads. We do not shrink from this. We embrace it. We do not shield our embarrassment, we offer it up. We do not deny any part of who we have been, of who we are. We choose to face our past decisions with courage. We own them all, knowing that to do less is to diminish ourselves today, and to hobble our future selves.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today.