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Seminar explores U.'s little-known connection to slavery

Under the guidance of three instructors, five undergraduate students in HIS 402: Princeton and Slavery are working closely with historical documents in Mudd Library to attempt to understand how slavery influenced the early development of the University.

Following the 2003 appointment of theSteering Committee on Slavery and Justiceat Brown by president Ruth Simmons, Princeton is among a number of other universities that are now researching how slavery shaped their own educational institutions.

History professor Martha Sandweiss teaches the class alongside University archivist Daniel Linke and postdoctoral fellow Craig Hollander. Sandweiss said that when she arrived at the University about four years ago, she was surprised that nobody had yet done a study similar to those conducted at Brown and elsewhere in Princeton, given the University's reputation as the “most Southern of the Ivies.”

“It was the school where Southern planters felt safe sending their sons, so it seemed to me there was probably an interesting story to be found here because Princeton had so many ties to the South, really from the moment of its founding,” she explained.

Sandweiss first taught the course during the spring 2013 semester with a focus on the slaveholding practices of University students. This semester focuses more on slavery’s role in the 18th-century financial contributions, like donations and investments, to the University and where the money that built the institution came from.

Hollander is working on the project as a Behrman postdoctoral fellow. He was hired specifically to help co-teach the course, as required by his fellowship, and then take over for Sandweiss when she goes on leave in the spring 2014 semester.

While Sandweiss offers expertise in public history — or the presentation of research findings and creation of an appropriate vehicle for disseminating information to outside academia — Hollander said that he brings to the class his own expertise in American slavery during the late 18thand 19thcenturies.

While the investigation into the University’s roots in slavery has been confined to one course, the project at Brown encompassed a much larger scope, Sandweiss said, adopting more of a top-down approach that was organized and paid for by the administration.

The Brown committee included faculty members, undergraduate and graduate students and administrators. Along with investigating the university's historical relationship to slavery, the committee’s 2006 report made a number of recommendations for public forums and freshman orientation programs to discuss the issue, as well as the creation of a center to continue research on slavery and justice.

“We cannot change the past. But an institution can hold itself accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges,” the report read. “In the present instance, this means acknowledging and taking responsibility for Brown’s part in grievous crimes.”

Despite the lack of faculty and graduate student involvement in Sandweiss' project, she said that she believes this is work that undergraduates can do as well.

The Brown report was followed by an undergraduate class at Harvard in fall 2007, which investigated Harvard's own part in slavery. The class made its findings available on a comprehensive website, "Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History."

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In Princeton’s course, students will have a similar opportunity to create their own research projects. They will have access to relevant primary sources from Mudd Library, including faculty minutes, trustees’ minutes, files on students and land records to understand how the campus was acquired.

Unlike most other courses, the students’ findings will extend beyond a Dean’s Date paper.The class is now discussing how it would like its research to be released to the public, Hollander said. He explained that ideas include creating a smartphone app that would include a walking tour of the University, videos and an interactive timeline. They are currently in talks with the computer science department to collaborate on further developing this project.

“We could interface with different departments that ordinarily would have nothing to do with this kind of public history endeavor,” Hollander said. “We’re going to really make this an institutionalized project.”

History major Brett Diehl ’15 said that he enrolled in the course because the opportunity allowed him to discuss a major topic in American history and frame it more locally.

“Sometimes doing history with a global perspective is like you’re one in a sea of many,” Diehl said. “This [project] is directly retelling our past and trying to interpret where ... [our school's] roots lie with respect to something that we can all unilaterally agree is pretty troubling.”

The course was sponsored in its first year by the Council of Humanities with a grant from the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project, and it continued its support of the project with Hollander’s postdoctoral position.

Sandweiss said that she will not be submitting student work to the administration, but they will have access to the information when it is made publicly available.

University spokesperson Martin Mbugua, responding on behalf of Dean of the College Valerie Smith, whose office oversees the undergraduate curriculum, declined to provide the administration's perspective on the course.

“I think that with something as sensitive as slavery, I think that it’s really positive that they [members of the administration] seem to understand that this should be run by people who understand the material and the context,” Hollander said. “I’m sure we’ll have higher-level meetings when the time comes, when we’re ready to go live, but I think for right now they’re being very hands-off and very supportive because I think they understand that this should be handled by the experts on campus.”

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that University spokesperson Martin Mbugua responded on behalf of Dean of the College Valerie Smith.