For the first time in three years, scholars from small and medium sized institutions came to Yale University for the Legacies of American Slavery Summer Seminar between June 19-23. Hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University as well as the Council of Independent Colleges, this summer seminar was meant to be a moment for educators to discuss their active engagement with the nine legacy themes and relevant readings not limited to public commentary, historiography, and primary documents. Hosted by David Blight, each scholar, from Sweet Briar College in Virginia to Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, added their own pertinent knowledge to the field over the course of four days in June.
Throughout each day, professors were challenged to lead and participate in discussions surrounding difficult topics: from the latest violence in the history wars to the increasing synergy between historians and journalists (as The 1619 Project has gone on to showcase). For each day, outstanding scholars including Carol Anderson (Emory University), James Forman, Jr. (Yale Law School), and Carolyn Roberts (Yale University) led discussions about voter suppression, mass incarceration, and slavery and medicine, respectively. Perhaps atypical to seminars in the humanities, scholars were not limited to a single discipline. Besides history, many of these educators could count the sciences as their field of study, adding unique points of discussion that perhaps would have gone unnoticed had this seminar only included historians; for example, one biologist was able to point out how even wild animals have a sense of America’s racist history–knowing which neighborhoods are their own in urban communities.
While in New Haven, participants were treated to a tour, led by Michael Morand, of fascinating locations like Grove Street Cemetery (which holds resting souls like W.E.B. Du Bois’s grandparents, Eli Whitney, and other notables) and documentary gems (like the pen President Abraham Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation) held in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Proudly known as the pizza capital of the world, the participants were also treated to one of New Haven’s many local pizza joints for dinner.
As scholars across disciplines and regions hope to reclaim the time missed due to the pandemic, our hope is that these professionals were reminded of the network of historians who are interested in this work. This seminar, however, was not limited to the discussions or the ours, but the camaraderie that cannot be replaced through virtual calls that have been the norm over the past two and a half years. Between sessions at the refreshment table or the meal table, each scholar sat with a new group each day, gleaning the knowledge we have all been missing over the last several years. More than anything else, this seminar is the beginning of a commitment to professional communities, but also a reminder of how imperative it is to discuss what we learn outside of the classroom with others as much as possible. Scholars may have expected to learn about the legacies of slavery, but perhaps they learned as much about each other as they did about the subjects at hand. In creating an in-person symposium, re-creating a sense of camaraderie was one of our understated goals, and as scholars exchanged personal information to continue discussions away from Yale, we believed that this four-day session proved fruitful.