Campus history as public history: Interpreting slavery through historical walking tours

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Public history students guiding tour participants through campus, including the oldest extant building on the New Brunswick campus, Old Queens. Scarlet and Black researchers uncovered records noting that an enslaved man named Will laid the foundation of this building in 1808. A footpath between this building and the rest of campus has since been named “Will’s Way.” Photo credit: Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan

Can campus history be public history? NCPH members and others, both inside and outside of the academy, have been grappling with this question for years, considering the often-fraught town/gown and faculty/administration relationships many of our colleagues face. The ways that we answer this question have changed significantly over the last decade, however, as dozens of colleges and universities have endeavored to reckon with the reality of their histories, many in response to institutional connections to slavery. Brown University’s Slavery and Justice report from 2006, and Craig Steven Wilder’s 2013 book Ebony and Ivy have been particularly influential in motivating these investigations because they have provided many universities a blueprint for research on these subjects that institutions have previously ignored or thought too challenging to uncover.

In 2015, several undergraduate students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, joining in an ongoing movement by their peers across the country, raised concerns that the university’s relationship to, and benefit from, slavery was hidden from the public eye. In response, the university’s administration, under the leadership of then-chancellor Richard L. Edwards, assembled a team of historians, archivists, students, and researchers, into a Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History. Professor Deborah Gray White was appointed to chair this committee, as well as a subcommittee dedicated to researching this history, which was co-chaired by Professor Marisa Fuentes. Over the next year, dozens of researchers uncovered the deep ties between Rutgers and the institution of slavery as well as questions of Native American sovereignty and land possession. The committee published its findings in a book, Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History (available on JSTOR here) in late 2016, which traced the university’s early history, uncovering how the university benefited from the economies of slavery and how Rutgers came to own the land it inhabits. Like other institutions, the Rutgers report included a list of recommendations to begin answering the questions the committee identified as central to this subject: “What can the institution do to acknowledge and reconcile with its role in benefiting from slavery? . . . How can it make this history accessible to students and other community members?”

To begin to answer those questions, the committee argued, monuments and historical markers should be erected, and the public should be made aware of this history in a variety of ways, making the research accessible through diverse digital formats and historical walking tours. This latter point reflected a deeper commitment to ensuring that the landscape of the campus itself could become legible in new ways, and the contributions of Native Americans and African Americans in the university’s earliest years could be witnessed within the physical spaces they had occupied, constructed, and affected.

Faculty members, graduate students, and undergraduate students collaborated, with the guidance of committee members and project leaders, to develop a historical walking tour highlighting key locations on campus where the marks of slavery and disenfranchisement were readable. They identified a suitable script, route, and talking points. Ten undergraduate students were recruited to develop and conduct the tours over the Fall 2017 semester through our public history internship program. These students learned not only about the university’s history through the committee’s research, but were trained in the public historian’s tools of stakeholder consultation and reflective practice along the way. To date, dozens of tours have been conducted, and nearly 200 participants reached.

The biggest takeaway reported by the tour guides and tour participants was the profound impact of sharing and learning this information on the actual physical landscape of the campus, with the ability to see past the surrounding twenty-first-century structures and into the nineteenth-century context. On a few occasions, passersby joined in on tours, drawn in by the guides’ narratives. Nearly all involved reported that encountering this information in person and in situ deepened their understanding, a nod to the value of experiential learning and public history environments.

As the project continues to develop, answers to questions about the role of campus historians in public history projects may change. Professors White and Fuentes continue to co-chair the Scarlet and Black Project, which is currently carrying its research forward into the twentieth century. A virtual version of the walking tour is in development. Along the way, this project has addressed questions which the Campus Histories Working Group at NCPH annual meetings has been grappling with since its inception in 2015: What are the tools we need to propose or contribute to campus history efforts? To what extent is campus history public history versus “insider history”? What methodological models seem to work best for campus public history projects? Historical walking tours seem to bypass some of the challenges that arise when treating campus history as public history—especially in providing access to campus spaces for members of the public and avoiding implied or inherent hierarchy in academic spaces. Perhaps most importantly, projects like this one create the opportunity to fulfill one of the working group’s goals of documenting contemporary struggles over the presence of the past and the power of place in the campus context.

Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan is a public historian and scholar of early American social history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She researches poverty, slavery, mobility, crime and punishment in the early American northeast, and public historical and commemorative representations of these subjects. Her book Vagrants and Vagabonds: Poverty and Mobility in the Early American Republic will be published by New York University Press in 2019.

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