The Dartmouth Slavery Project is situated at the juncture of two significant developments in the scholarship on slavery in the United States. The first encompasses the critical interrogation of a collective memory that not only disavowed the presence of enslaved persons in New England but cloaked its complicity with and profits from the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The second intellectual project is the recovery of the history of colleges’ and universities’ economic, intellectual, and moral entanglements with the institution of slavery.
The origins of this project are rooted in a former president of the College’s causal observation that Dartmouth — besides the well-known fact that its founder Eleazar Wheelock owned slaves — had minimal engagement with slavery. Sociology professor Deborah K. King found this assertion incongruent with New England’s maritime history, the cotton mills scattered across its landscape, the routes northward to freedom that traversed its valleys and mountains, and the political contestations over slavery and abolition. In addition to her own scholarship, she had wanted to train and support a number of students investigating Dartmouth’s ties to slavery.
In Winter 2014, “Lest We Forget: History, Collective Memory and Slavery at Dartmouth” was offered as an advance research practicum in sociology, but open to all students. The course had four major objectives: 1) to review the literatures on slavery in New England and in relationship to American colleges, 2) to examine the various approaches underlying similar projects at other, and 3) to conduct primary and secondary research that would enable us to contextualize Dartmouth’s history within those two scholarly trends. The research team consisted of five talented and highly motivated undergraduate students:
Mackenzie H. Bohannon ’14
Hayley M. Brown ’14
Paola G. Cazares ’14
Rashelle R. James ’14
Jordan M. Terry ’15
The team elected to focus its initial efforts on documenting the experiences of the African American undergraduate students and medical students while attending the College from its founding in 1769 to the early 1900s. Slavery and the politics of race were central to their lives prior to, during and following their graduation. In addition to their professions as ministers, educators, doctors, and lawyers, many are deeply committed to the anti-slavery campaign. Some became abolitionists, and agents of the Underground Railroad, and others, disheartened by the scars of racism, chose to immigrate to Liberia, Africa.
Two figures that loom large in Dartmouth lore are Nathan Lord and Daniel Webster, and they too become pivot in our slavery investigations. The former, one of its longest serving presidents, is compelled to resign because of his belief that slavery is divinely permissible. The latter, celebrated for ably defending its autonomy as a private institution, is forgotten as an apologist for slavery in defense of preserving the Union. Many others affiliated with Dartmouth were members of colonization societies and actively lobbied for and financed the return of enslaved and free Blacks to Africa. Yet others were among some of the staunchest and fearless advocates of not only the dismantling of slavery, but also the assurance of African American full and equal citizenship. The contests over slavery became the focus our recent research efforts during the Spring term.
The Dartmouth Slavery Project website and related history tour present the results of our investigations to date. You are encouraged to browse the site, take the tour. The project and its work are ongoing . . . join us!