In the last fifteen years, slavery has gone to college. Or, rather, colleges and universities have taken themselves back to school. Initiatives at several of the nation’s oldest, most elite institutions have sought to uncover their historical entanglements with slavery, which went overlooked—often willfully—for generations. The efforts date to 2003, when Brown University President Ruth Simmons established a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which delivered a bombshell report three years later. Similar initiatives followed at Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, Rutgers University, the College of William & Mary, and elsewhere. Media attention swelled following the 2013 publication of historian Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, and swelled again last year after the New York Times reported that, in 1838, Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved people to keep itself afloat. Now, onto this stage, enters Ole Miss.
That the school’s nickname draws criticism for fostering antebellum nostalgia makes one question whether the University of Mississippi really requires the same wake-up call needed at Ivy League schools in northern states whose citizens have a very long tradition of imagining away their regional history of slavery. Yes it does, says Dr. Jeffrey Jackson and Dr. Charles Ross, co-chairs of the University of Mississippi Slavery Research Group. When we spoke on the phone on March 15, they made clear that even in the Deep South, on a campus that was itself built alongside slave plantations, the stories of enslaved people are still very difficult to recover and collective amnesia is pervasive. But, with a diverse group of colleagues beginning both figurative and literal excavations of the University’s history, Jackson and Ross intend to confront historical erasures and create a campus landscape where the past is present.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
Brian Hamilton: Would you sketch out the origins of your group? How did it come to be and what led you both to get involved?
Charles Ross: In 2012, following the reelection of Barack Obama, we had an incident on our campus in which students who had a difference of opinion over Mitt Romney and Obama spilled out during election night. It was very contentious and, as a result, [former] Chancellor Dan Jones convened a couple of committees that decided that there needed to be more research looking at the history of race on our campus.
Jeffrey Jackson: We have this ongoing cycle of racist incidents that occur, and the university tries to figure out why these things happen and acts a little more surprised than it should, being that these things happen on most college campuses, but particularly here at the University of Mississippi with our history of white supremacy. Chuck and I have been involved over the years on this. We first met working on Black History Month and then the 40th and 50th anniversaries of James Meredith’s [matriculation as the University’s first African American student]. After that 2012 incident we, as faculty, felt we needed to do more. So we were having lunch and heard an NPR story with Craig Steven Wilder talking about Ebony and Ivy. And we said, why haven’t we done a good job telling our own story with regard to slavery? That’s a story we should all know, and yet we don’t. So Chuck called Craig up on the phone, and he was very hospitable and wanted to come down. We thought we might get 15 or 20 faculty who were interested in joining a reading group. We got 55. After reading the book and seeing what a pivotal role slavery played in the history of American universities and colleges, it was like a green light. Everyone unanimously agreed we needed to continue this.
CR: Craig rode back to the Memphis airport with Jeff and me, and he gave us some great ideas about what we should do. From there, we decided to turn this reading group into a research group, and from there it’s rolled. We’ve hired graduate students. We’ve brought in experts from a wide array of perspectives. We became involved with a consortium at the University of Virginia. Jeff and I went to Harvard this past spring for a great conference. All of this has snowballed into something very positive. Our group is made up of individuals from various disciplines—not only faculty, but staff people, librarians, and administrators—and has received strong support from Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter. We’ve got great plans for an archaeological dig on the grounds of the university, as well as a conference looking at Faulkner’s relationship with slavery. And we’re trying to position ourselves to do something in 2019, when ideally the United States will begin to acknowledge the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving in America.
BH: On your website, you say that “we know very little about slavery at the University of Mississippi at the time of its founding” in 1848. That might strike some as surprising, as universities keep lots of records, and planters, too, keep lots of records. Why don’t we know more? What obstacles are you up against?
JJ: The University when it was founded was largely a kind of Wild West. It was a boom area. With the Indian Removal Act, the Choctaw and Chickasaw were being removed, and the white settlers were coming in and buying up the land and, just as quickly, importing the enslaved to work on the cotton plantations, which were growing like crazy. So the university sprang up out of nothing. I’ve been very surprised to learn about the lack of records regarding the original construction. We have board of trustee minutes and faculty minutes. There are some small references to local slaveholders renting out their slaves to help build the campus. We have some of the names of the slaveholders, but we don’t have any names of the slaves. And we have very few names of any of the enslaved individuals who ended up working and living on our campus, because when the Census taker would come around in 1850 and 1860 they would record the slaveholder’s name, but not the name of the enslaved individual who lived in the same household. We have numbers of people; we have age, sex, and color recorded for these individuals. Chuck emphasized from the start that one of the first things we should do is try to recover the names. We originally had two names mentioned in the records—Jane and George. Since then, thanks to the work of History Professors Annie Twitty and Paul Polgar and their graduate students Chet Bush and Andrew Marion, we’ve recovered seven more, mostly from the papers of the chancellors of the University. It’s amazing how little we actually know.
CR: That’s been one of the more frustrating aspects. We may have to be a little more creative and try to go a different route. We may try to reach out to the local African American community, through black churches and other venues, to try to get their oral histories that may shed some light on that early history.
BH: One dimension of your project that makes it distinct from similar initiatives at other universities is the inclusion of archaeologists. What do they offer you, and how has it been working across disciplines?
JJ: The archaeology has been one of the most exciting aspects of what’s been happening here. I’m a sociologist, so I look for where the data is. And historians look for where the documents are. When data and documents are so rare—most of the enslaved were not able to write down their stories—the fragile traces of their lives are precious. So one of the goals of the group is a data-generating project. Archaeologists, like Jodi Skipper and Carolyn Freiwald, can dig under the soil and find artifacts related to the lives of the enslaved. Historians can dig into the archive. Community organizers can find out what’s part of people’s oral histories or what documents might be in their attics. With the archaeology, we’ve discovered how our own place, in North Mississippi, provides a fertile space in which to look at the remnants of slavery that are just below the surface.
So we’re hoping to do some archaeology on our own campus. In particular, we’re beginning a project at the home of William Faulkner, Rowan Oak, which was originally an antebellum plantation, owned by a man named Robert Sheegog. He had a very large cotton plantation out in the countryside, with over 80 slaves, but he had his town home here, and there were nine enslaved individuals. In collaboration with the Digital Archaelogical Archive of Comparative Slavery efforts at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, anthropologists Maureen Meyers and Tony Boudreaux are leading graduate and undergraduate students in looking at the out buildings at Rowan Oak to provide clues to what life was like. I guess we’re digging figuratively and literally, piecing together everything we can find, and bringing state of the art research methods and technologies to bear on an important question we should know much more about.
BH: In exploring institutional links to slavery, several universities have begun discussions about the names on their buildings. Yale has received the national headlines here, but it’s going on at Ole Miss, too. I’d be curious about your thoughts about how those conversations relate to your work, but I’m also interested in how you’re thinking about campus buildings differently, as places that were once within a geography of enslaved people’s lives.
CR: We’ve had some lively discussions and some listening sessions with the public as we wrestle with issues around context. This is a national phenomenon right now. It’s not simply college campuses. The city of New Orleans is in the midst of a major situation, taking down monuments—erected in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—to P. G. T. Beauregard and another that celebrates the violent overthrow of Republican elected officials in 1874.
I’m speaking just for myself, not as a committee member, but as a historian. One of the issues I have with the Confederate monuments spread all across the South—in just about every town in the 82 counties in Mississippi—is that they were created in an era of segregation and white supremacy and violence against African Americans. We’re at a very different stage now as a society. But these vestiges of the past are clear reminders of a time when we were a divided people. We don’t have “colored water fountain” signs still up. That would seem ludicrous. But that these monuments can be in the public—rather than in a museum that an individual must choose to go to—means we are asking African American citizens who need to renew their license or complete a legal transaction in Lafayatte County to walk by the Confederate monument that sits right in the Square in Oxford. To me that’s a problem. That’s telling black people: tough, you’ve just got to take it. Well, no. It just doesn’t work like that. These are taxpayers, people who are a part of society. Millions and millions of African Americans are mayors, municipal employees, people who work on college campus, not to mention the number of African American athletes who are helping these schools in the Deep South make a tremendous amount of money off of football and other sports. You’re saying this is something that is cloaked in tradition and because of that it can’t be touched. Well, we’ve changed lots of traditions in this county. And so I think these monuments need to be relocated and, in some cases, names on buildings need to be changed.
JJ: We’ve living in the first generation to ask these questions. In the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, when Chuck and I were growing up, we weren’t really prepared to have these kinds of conversations, and there wasn’t an intellectual tradition within the academy that provided the understanding we needed in terms of antiracism and the power of symbols to perpetuate inequalities. We’re now at that point. It’s the first time we’re having these conversations in the open and on equal terms.
Related to our own geography, here on our campus, the founding fathers of the University were all slaveholders and their names are very present on our buildings. And the monuments connected to the Confederacy and Jim Crow are part of our campus and always have been. The University has gone through a very long process of trying to extricate itself from some of the more egregious symbols, such as the Confederate battle flag in the stadium and Colonel Rebel, the mascot. But Chuck and I feel we have a lot of work to do to create more of a presence of context, so students understand why these monuments were put there and when. Our University history as it relates to the Civil War is very important. L.Q.C. Lamar was a faculty member here, and he wrote the articles of secession for the State of Mississippi. In a sense, that’s a teachable thing, but having Lamar Hall, which I’m sitting in right now as I speak with you, means we need to know who he was and the role he played in white supremacy, in slavery, and in the Confederate movement. We’re arguing for more history. We would love to see the campus itself be viewed as a historic site, and our students being able to study American history from the perspective of their own campus. Perhaps someday we’ll have a campus history museum, where you could go through Indian Removal, slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and so on, and see how that played out right here on our campus.
BH: Neither of you grew up in the South. You’re Midwestern transplants. How does this work affect your sense of place and your effort to make a home in Mississippi?
CR: One of the one hand, we both do race, so there’s no better place to be. But on the other hand, it’s a very, very frustrating subject matter to deal with, and it can really test your patience. This is a place where, if we can continue to push the envelope, the University of Mississippi has great potential to serve as one of the real examples in this country of how people can move forward. It’s a situation where we’ve decided that the only way to make a change is for people like us to devote the time, energy, and effort that it requires.
JJ: The other thing we have in common is that both of our families were active in trying to change their communities. I grew up in Milwaukee in a white family, but my parents adopted children of different ethnic backgrounds and my parents were really involved in those early-1970s movements to desegregate the public schools. Chuck’s father was basically responsible for creating the African American Studies program at Ohio State. So we’ve seen the generations before us have some success. And we come to Mississippi—and I agree with Chuck that it can be difficult, but it’s difficult everywhere. I think the racial problems in Milwaukee are just as serious as the racial problems we have here.
But at the same time, as we work with students, we see that they really want to do this work to make their campus a better place. And they see the opportunity here. And we all have this idea that it’d be great if the University of Mississippi could be a leader. I think that’s a very seductive idea. We have to be careful with it, because in many respects we like to think we’re doing a little bit more than we actually are. But it is a driving goal of ours that, because of where we live and the issues we’ve confronted, if we can own that story and incorporate a truthful analysis of it into our public understanding, then we really can move forward. Before we can talk about repair and reparations, we need to understand first. And we don’t yet have a collective, deep understanding of the injustice. That’s the direction we want to go.
Featured image: Rowan Oak, owned by enslaver Robert Sheegog at the time of the founding of the University of Mississippi. Later home to William Faulkner, it is now part of the Ole Miss campus. Photo by Visit Mississippi, 2005.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Brian Hamilton is Interim Managing Editor of Edge Effects. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, writing a dissertation entitled “Cotton’s Keepers: Black Agricultural Expertise in Slavery and Freedom.” His research took him to the island in Mississippi where President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and his brother once enslaved thousands of people, a story he recounts here. Hamilton earned his B.A. at Columbia University, where the history faculty now offer an annual undergraduate seminar on the university’s institutional links to slavery. Twitter. Contact.
Jeffrey T. Jackson is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Mississippi and co-chair of the University’s Slavery Research Group. He is a scholar of globalization in the developing world and has published a monograph on Honduras, The Globalizers: Development Workers in Action (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005). His writing has appeared in the The Global South, the International Journal of Comparative Sociology, the Journal of American Studies, and Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. Jackson grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and received his doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, he was named a Mississippi Humanities Council Teacher of the Year. Website. Contact.
Charles K. Ross is Professor of History, Director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Mississippi, and co-chair of the University’s Slavery Research Group. He is the author of two books, Mavericks, Money, and Men: The AFL, Black Players, and the Evolution of Modern Football (Temple University Press, 2016) and Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League (New York University Press, 2001), and the editor of Race and Sport: The Struggle for Equality On and Off the Field (University Press of Mississippi, 2004). A native of Columbus, Ohio, he earned his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University and has provided commentary on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” ESPN Radio, and in the Wall Street Journal. Website. Contact.