Historians of Slavery Find Fruitful Terrain: Their Own InstitutionsJUNE 21, 2016
Crystal S. Rosson had spent years tracing her family roots — poring over courthouse documents, asking relatives to show her the unmarked graves of their ancestors, even quitting her job at a Virginia high school to devote more energy to her research. With every new picture and article she uncovered, one thought lingered in her mind: Where had her great-grandfather Sterling Jones lived? One day she found her answer. It was a well-kept cabin, once a farm-tool museum, now mostly vacant. And it sat only a stone’s throw from the back door of the mansion of the president of Sweet Briar College.
Ms. Rosson had chills. She lives just three miles down the road from Sweet Briar, and she says her family always felt a connection to the women’s college, but she never fully understood why. Since the first day she stood outside that cabin, she has learned more about that connection.
Her great-grandfather was a bricklayer; in fact, he was employed by the college to construct some of its first buildings after the former plantation became an institution of higher education. The cabin, she discovered, was also where Jones’s father probably lived as a slave.
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Ms. Rosson called administrators at the college to see if anyone knew anything about Jones. That’s when she met Lynn Rainville, a research professor in the humanities. Ms. Rainville is director of the Tusculum Institute, which she helped create in 2008 to research and preserve local history. For the previous 15 years, she had been doing just the opposite of Ms. Rosson — tracing Jones’s descendants to find out where they ended up.
“It was a fluke,” Ms. Rosson says of meeting Ms. Rainville. “We had long, crazy, amazing conversations that started us on this path together to piece my great-grandfather’s connection together to the college.” In 2014 the two researchers reopened the cabin with an exhibit to teach students and the public about the college’s historical ties to slavery.
The collaboration between Ms. Rosson and Ms. Rainville was accidental, sparked simply by their own curiosity. But the professor and the genealogist are by no means alone. As more institutions grapple with their own thorny histories, a growing number of scholars are digging into public history and raising questions about colleges and universities’ responsibility to acknowledge and explain those links to slavery and racism.
That represents a shift in scholarly thinking, says Kirt von Daacke, an assistant dean and associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. “Scholars haven’t been deeply involved in micro-institutional history,” he says. “They see it generally as a bit of navel-gazing, but they think it’s great for students to do.”
More at the link (behind paywall, alas).