Salem seniors Jessi Bowman and Alanna Natanson attended “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape”, a four-day symposium at The University of Virginia as a part of the Universities Studying Slavery organization.
The symposium took place between Oct. 18 and 21. Programs consisted of panels, paper presentations and an excursion to three presidential house museums. Speakers included academic speakers, public historians and museum interpreters. Those in attendance were primarily larger public institutions, but smaller liberal arts and women’s colleges from the south were also present.
Universities Studying Slavery is “dedicated to organizing multi-institutional collaboration as part of an effort to facilitate mutual support in the pursuit of common goals,” as stated on the University of Virginia’s website. “USS additionally allows participating institutions to work together as they address both historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education and in university communities as well as the complicated legacies of slavery in modern American society.”
Natanson states that USS’ task is “to share ideas and strategies among institutions of higher education for investigating each individual school’s ties to slavery. They also address what to do with the information they find out.”
Following recent development in the public knowledge of Salem College’s ties with slavery, students have expressed concern with the institution’s response to information revealing Elisabeth Oesterlein and her husband’s ownership of an enslaved person.
“At a lot of institutions, the process for investigating the university’s ties to slavery started in a similar way to how it began here: with someone, usually a student or faculty member, conducting research and discovering the connection,” Natanson says. “At some institutions, those reports get filed away and forgotten about, while other schools create an infrastructure to continue the research. It seems like Salem is heading down the second path, with their History of Salem Traditions committee and the research into Salem’s history of slavery by Dr. Grant McAllister.”
Natanson and Bowman, along with many other Salem students share the belief that it is important that Salem explore their past with slavery and make a commitment to admitting their practices and honoring enslaved persons and the hardships they were forced to endure to keep communities running.
“I think about how many elementary school groups cycle through the Single Sisters House every day on their Old Salem fieldtrips,” Natanson shares. “It is essential that when they learn the story of how our college got started, we as a school also show them who had to suffer in order for this experiment to succeed. If there is information to suggest Salem College benefited from enslaved labor, North Carolina needs to know that.”
Natanson also feels that “if Salem can show a commitment to investigating and acknowledging the way that the vicious system of slavery touched our campus, it suggests they are generally interested in in making this institution a welcoming and growth-inducing college for everyone. Not to mention that the school as whole has the ability to analyze historical texts in a critical fashion.”
As an institution and community, Salem College has taken a step towards altering the understanding of the college’s ties with slavery. However, Natanson points out that “it was useful that members of the Salem community saw just how much work Salem still has to go on the path to understanding its role within the institution of slavery.”