Slavery and Race Project receives National Endowment for the Humanities grant

Dr. Woody Register with students of History 328: Slavery, Race, and the University. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

By Colton Williams
Executive Editor

The Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation recently received a Common Heritage Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of only 23 recipients of the distinction.

The Common Heritage grant emphasizes the importance of local history and democratizing the participation in collecting and preserving local history. The grant will provide $12,000 to help fund the Project’s work this summer with the African American community of Sewanee.

“The main objective is two parts,” said Dr. Woody Register (C’80), director of the project. “One, to write African Americans back into the history of this university and this community, and two, and more important, to enlist the local residents of this community in the pursuit and preservation and telling of their history.”

This summer, the Project will host two “digitization days,” one on Memorial Day and another just after the Fourth of July, where local residents will be invited to share materials of their personal and communal history. Everything from scrapbooks to family bibles can then be scanned, digitized, archived, and given back to the owners. Oral histories will also be a part of the project.

This method is called “community-driven archiving” and seeks to give power to people in the dispensation of the archives created out of their histories, as well as incorporate the histories of people who have traditionally been left out of archival records. The Project aims to share power with people in the local community in overseeing what happens with these materials, so that present and former African American residents of Sewanee and their descendents have a stake in the history, rather than the more traditional relationship of a university dictating what is worthy to be archived.

“Historically,” Register said, “archives have focused on the people who ‘make’ history, but this is a very narrow understanding of what it means to ‘make’ history. So part of the work that we have to do is to help people see that they have histories too, and that they and their families and their ancestors have all made history, that their histories matter to them as well as to the communities in which they live.”

A long application process preceded the awarding of the grant, with numerous people on campus involved in the effort. Aside from Register, Research Associate Tanner Potts (C’15), Sponsored Research Officer Pollyanne Frantz, Director of Community Development Nicky Hamilton, and Tom Sanders from the Office of University Advancement were just a few of the many people integral to winning the grant.

“I was particularly interested in the community-archiving project,” said Hamilton, “Because I’m a Sewanee grad and I’m from Johannesburg, South Africa, and I grew up during apartheid in South Africa, so this project and particularly race, slavery, and reconciliation is obviously very important to me.”

Hamilton added that from the perspective of community development, the project is exciting in that the members of the community have ownership in the archival process. “It’s not the University telling the story,” she said. “The community will tell the story for themselves.”

The work has already gotten under way, as the Project has met on multiple occasions with community residents.

“Each time we have met, our friends in the community end each session by sharing their memories of growing up in Sewanee, and it’s always interesting, informative, and fun,” said Potts. “I think I know quite a bit about Sewanee’s history, but these stories remind me that there is still so much to learn.”

Learning more about Sewanee’s history, particularly the often undervalued and understudied history of its African American residents, is a goal of the project.

“It’s a complicated history of race on this mountain,” Register said. “It’s not one that falls into an easy drama of good versus evil and oppressor and oppressed. It has great complexity.”

Sorting out that complexity is also part of the work of the Project, and Register says there is already great enthusiasm from both community members and University students and faculty.

Ultimately, the Common Heritage grant will provide the resources so that students, faculty, and the African American community of Sewanee can better understand their shared history. Register doesn’t see this as a one-time event or project, but the beginning of an important enterprise.

“So we’re just getting underway,” Register said. “But the NEH grant will enable us to do this in a really good way.”