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Projects That Inspire Us
The University of Richmond is not the only college that has worked to uncover its racial history. Below are some exemplary projects from other institutions attempting to revive forgotten memories of race and racism from which the University takes its lead. Just as other digital archives—such as Loyola University’s Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project—have done--we wish to acknowledge these other projects. They have served as examples of proper digital archiving, as well as inspirations to dig deeper into our University’s racial history.
Each project inspires us in different ways, since each project had different methods and strategies. Some were bottom-up efforts, started by a group of students and/or faculty that grew into University-wide projects. Others were top-down, such as the ones issued directly from the presidents of certain universities. Some projects began small: as class assignments or course curricula. Others were large-scale from the start: collaborations across schools, organizations, and communities. Yet regardless of method, the motivation for each project—including ours—is the same: to complicate racial histories, to ask difficult questions regarding racism and slavery, to educate others about the experiences of forgotten groups, and to work to correct past wrongs with present-day discussion, reflection, and action.
The following projects are ordered chronologically, since digital archiving—and collective memory in general—is a process. Just as we were inspired by the projects below, the groups behind each one were inspired themselves, by projects that came before theirs. More importantly, it is necessary to see how such projects have evolved over time: in the way in which they collect data, in the way in which they present data, and in the way in which they use data to facilitate present change. We hope to inspire future projects, as the ones below have done for us. We hope to leave an example for further exploration into the histories of racism and slavery, so that the craft of digital archiving can become more refined, and more impactful on collective memory.
One of the oldest and largest projects on this list, the University of Southern Mississippi’s digital collection dates back to November 1999 and contains over 2,200 photos, personal letters and diaries, oral history transcripts, and other data sources documenting the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. It is a project that tells the history of a local area, but extends it to have national significance. It uses Mississippi’s history as an important location for race relations and civil rights to provide a general commentary on United States racial history. The archive’s impressive size encourages us to continue our search for more items to further build our own collection. Moreover, this project’s effort to go beyond the “ivory tower,” and make its archive significant not just to the university itself but to the state and the entire nation is a goal we similarly strive for in our own project.
In 2003, Brown University President Ruth Simmons appointed this committee—comprised of students, faculty, and administrators—and asked them to look into the university’s historical ties to slavery and, in particular, the slave trade. Over the next three years, the committee worked to document and discuss Brown’s racial history. In concluding its work, the committee presented a report to President Simmons in October 2006, which explained the university’s tie to slavery and offering ways in which Brown can facilitate future discussion and reflection on racism. Following this report, the Brown Corporation endorsed a plan of action in February 2007, which included steps such as establishing memorials for public acknowledgement, organizing academic programs that continue study and discussion of racism and slavery, and creating programs to help advance local schools and communities. Brown University’s project is one of the first of its kind. It combined research into a dark period of the past—asking difficult and complex questions about racism and slavery—with present-day action in hopes to correct these wrongs. The Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice has been replicated, or at least used as a model, for countless other racism projects that have come after it.
Starting in 2007, 32 Harvard undergraduate students created the Harvard and Slavery project, which had the goal of researching the university’s historical ties to slavery. Students examined university archives, library books, the oldest buildings on their campus, and even neighboring graveyards. Their site also includes a “Walking Tour” feature, in which the project connects moments in Harvard’s history with specific locations on the college’s campus. This collection uncovers a deep and unsettling local history of slavery at Harvard, but calls for further research to be done. This research team sought to inspire not only future Harvard students, but also other universities to look further into their racial histories. This project shows us how uncovering our history of racism is not jeopardizing, but liberating and enlightening. Harvard University’s work to learn more about its ties to racism and slavery has not tarnished the institution’s reputation but has led to a more constructive and inclusive community. In April 2016, Harvard unveiled a plaque on campus commemorating four slaves who were owned by the university. Georgia congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, who attended the ceremony revealing the plaque, praised Harvard’s efforts to understand its racial history, and encouraged other universities to follow its example.
The Lemon Project is an inspirational effort by the College of William & Mary to uncover its participation in slavery. It began in 2009, after both the student body and the faculty called for an investigation into the college’s past. The project is named after a man who was a slave at the college in the early 1800s. Beyond that, however, little is known about Lemon. William & Mary used this lack of information on this past slave as inspiration to learn more about the college’s past and the people who lived it. The project is a continuous effort, one in which the college hopes to learn of its past mistakes and rectify them for the present. The project even has its own Twitter page, which is updated regularly. The Lemon Project is commonly referenced in multiple digital collections on racism, as it serves as an appropriate standard for how uncovering ugly truths in history works not only to fully realize the memory of the past, but also to correct and enlighten the present.
The University of Maryland has close connections to slavery. Some of the first faculty members of the college owned slaves, and many students came from slaveholding families. Rather than cover up this history, the history department of the university created the course, “Knowing Our History: Slavery and the University of Maryland,” in 2009. The goal of the course was to explore and uncover the university’s past ties to slavery and racism. Students searched through archives, libraries, and historical repositories, both on and off campus, and learned that “the past can…be reconstructed from a deep knowledge of the context of events and a full appreciation of the circumstances of the lives of men and women.” In producing research for this class project, the students studied three main perspectives of the university’s history: the slave, the slaveholder, and the abolitionist. This comprehensive and determined approach to uncovering the university’s history has inspired us to collect as many stories as we can, so that we create the most complete and accurate memory possible. Unlike our project and others listed here, the University of Maryland’s project created no digital archive. Rather, the work of the students and faculty was all compiled into one report. The report curated specific evidence from the university’s past, and offered the class’s own interpretation of the school’s racial history.
DOVE was an archive created back in the 1980s, but has since been digitally uploaded for public use by Old Dominion University in 2013. The project was created to find, catalog, and preserve various data sources documenting the history of school desegregation in Virginia. The project is a collaborative effort by universities, libraries, and other community organizations. ODU has also connected the community to DOVE through Twitter. The project thus provides encouragement to expand our efforts in archiving, and to work with groups outside of our university, creating a network of partners all working toward a common goal of the advancement of archival procedure. Doing so will not only make the archiving process more expedient and substantial, but it will also allow us to broaden the scope of stories that are told, leading to a more inclusive and just collective memory. DOVE is also admirable for its focus on the individual. Rather than only focus on public documents explaining the history of integration, this project seeks to provide the personal stories of those who lived through this moment in history. Finally, this project has a commendably high level of public access and collaboration, as it encourages visitors to its site to help with the archive by contributing to the collection.
In 2013, University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan formed the Commission on Slavery and the University. With this project, the university sought to recognize and understand its history with slavery and acknowledge the lives of enslaved people connected to the institution. Such a project is particularly important for the University of Virginia, as its founder—Thomas Jefferson—has an infamous record regarding slavery and racism. The university’s willingness to address this uncomfortable aspect of its history is a courageous and commendable contribution to the construction of memory. President Sullivan tasked the commission with investigating university buildings thought to be historically related to slavery, connecting the university’s history with that of Monticello (Jefferson’s home), promoting university exhibitions on slavery, proposing further projects to educate the university community, as well as with considering appropriate forms of memorialization. Action has been taken since the commission. For example, UVA opened a new dormitory in Fall 2016 known as Gibbons House, named after a slave couple who lived at the university. Meanwhile, the university plans to change Jordan Hall—named after a 20th century eugenicist who believed racial minorities were unfit to reproduce—to Pinn Hall, named after Dr. Vivian Pinn, the first African American woman to graduate from UVA’s school of medicine in 1967. The Commission on Slavery and the University at UVA is an ambitious and respectable attempt to answer difficult questions, which has undoubtedly contributed to the progress the university has made in recent years.
VCU’s Freedom Now Project is a rare collection of photographs of civil rights protests in Virginia. The project consists of 277 photographs taken in Farmville, Virginia in the summer of 1963, divided into 13 different sets and accompanied by descriptions and supplemental materials. The photos feature protests led by Reverend L. Francis Griffin, pastor of First Baptist Church, against the segregation of local businesses, churches, and schools. The photos, as VCU archivist Alice Campbell put it, "uniquely illustrate the emotional and psychological tension present during this period.” The project inspires us to search for sources of memory beyond newspaper articles and personal letters. Photographs can provide details and context unrecognizable in text sources. As of 2014, the project is featured on the photo sharing site, “Flickr,” with the intention of having visitors to the site contribute by adding information about the people and events in the photographs.
The Queens College Civil Rights Archives has collected personal papers, organization records, artifacts, and other published and unpublished texts about civil rights activism, especially in regards to Queens College students from the 1960s. In collaboration with local schools and community members, Queens College has used an Omeka site since 2014 to provide a meaningful collection of data from a crucial time in racial history. This project also includes a timeline mapping out key events during the particular time period. We have learned from projects like these, as we have used a similar format in digitizing our project, and have now incorporated our own timeline within our memory project.
A course entitled “Digital Storytelling and the Great Migration” was offered at West Chester University in Fall 2014 and again in Spring 2016. The course featured students collecting a digital archive of images, articles, and other primary sources about the mass migration of blacks northward to Philadelphia in the early 1900s. The students even transcribed twenty-two interviews of southern blacks who migrated to Philadelphia as well as local blacks who saw them arrive, to create an index of over 1,000 key words. This Goin’ North project was a special inspiration for our project because of its close similarities to ours. Also coming from a course on digital archiving and using that knowledge to collaborate on a memory project, we can strongly relate to the work at Westchester University. The work of Goin’ North was incredibly extensive and rigorous, especially when considering that it was all done by undergraduate students. As students ourselves we are inspired by projects like this to push our limitations when creating our own digital archive.
University of Massachusetts-Boston, Stark & Subtle Divisions: A Collaborative History of Segregation in Boston
This 2015 collection was created by graduate students of the History and American Studies departments at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, as part of the “Transforming Archives in a Digital Age” course. The Stark & Subtle Divisions project compiles letters, photographs, documents, artifacts, and interviews from Boston’s past regarding segregation. Gathering data from the archives of their own university—as well as those from the Boston City Archives, Northeastern University, Suffolk University, and the Schlesinger Library—these students sought to depict the different responses to segregation from students, teachers, parents, churches, etc. They focused not only on the historical context but on individual experiences and emotions. They worked to depict the struggle, the fears, and the hope of those who supported and fought for school integration. Their work to emphasize the human experience in history, by compiling personal stories from various places and backgrounds, serves as an inspiring example for our project. Their approach to digital archiving demonstrates how there is never just one story to tell—each person has different experiences and interpretations of the past. It is our obligation as archivists to bring equal attention to each of these stories.
Since Fall of 2015, students and faculty at Georgetown University have collaborated on the Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation project. Georgetown’s project is designed to engage with the racial history of the university, especially in regards to slavery. Through a digital archive, as well as a historical timeline, Georgetown has not been afraid to uncover and address its ties to slavery. What is particularly inspiring about this project is that it has not only worked on acknowledging the past, but that it has also led Georgetown to seek out methods of reparation in the present. In August 2015, University President John J. DeGioia appointed a “Working Group” committee of students, faculty/staff members, alumni, and administrators to reflect on the findings of the project. The Working Group submitted a report to President DeGioia in the summer of 2016. The report contained recommendations for how the university could correct its past wrongs regarding slavery. Some of these suggestions—which have been adopted by President DeGioia—include issuing a formal apology, establishing a public memorial, renaming buildings after African Americans, and even offering unique scholarships to descendants of slaves. The Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation project therefore serves as a commendable example of how examination and recognition of our history serves the present as much as, if not more than, it does the past.