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Universities Studying Slavery conference comes to Carolina

Organizers encourage the public to participate in this free mix of scholarship, culture and conversation during spring break.

Blue Graphic that says At this place history, race, and a way forward.

Scholars from around the world will come to Chapel Hill over spring break when Carolina hosts the Universities Studying Slavery conference for the first time. But its organizers hope that locals — including faculty and staff, students and community members — will attend this free event and share their own wisdom by participating in the conversation. The registration deadline for the March 15-18 conference is March 3.

“This is not an ordinary academic conference,” said James Leloudis, co-chair of the History, Race and a Way Forward commission, which is sponsoring the conference. “The history we’re going to be talking about belongs not just to those of us inside the rock walls but also to the local descendant community and to members of the Indigenous communities whose ancestors hunted and made a living on this land. It belongs to every one of us who studies and teaches and works here.”

At This Place
Spring 2023 Universities Studying Slavery conference
March 15-18
Register by March 3.

USS is an international consortium of more than 100 institutions engaged in educational projects related to the legacies of slavery and racism on their campuses. Founded by the University of Virginia, the consortium expanded in 2015, with Carolina being one of the first universities to join. The USS sponsors two conferences each year, in the spring and the fall.

Carolina is a logical host location for several reasons, Leloudis said, starting with the rich archival resources found in the special collections of Wilson Library. It’s also an institution reckoning with its own legacy of being originally built on Native American land with the labor of enslaved people. Much of its earliest philanthropy came from slaveholders and the proceeds of lands seized from Native Americans.

“If you look back at the way that our story has been told, the institution of racial slavery is only on the margins,” Leloudis said. “A fundamental part of the work of the commission is to change that narrative and to tell a more complete and truer history of the University. I think that’s the prime directive.”

Carolina-specific highlights of the conference

March 15

  • 5 p.m. Gathering to Uplift Voices for Just and Equitable Futures.

March 16

  • 9-10 a.m. History, Race and Reckoning at UNC with Patricia Parker and James Leloudis, co-chairs of the History, Race and a Way Forward commission, and Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz.
  • Noon-1:15 p.m. Tours of the Unsung Founders Memorial (offered every 20 minutes).
  • 3:15-4:30 p.m. Representation and Reckoning with “On These Grounds”: A Reflection from UNC Libraries with Chaitra Powell, Meaghan Alston, Flannery Fitch and Jillian MacKinnon.

March 17

  • 10:30-11:45 a.m. Race and Racism at the University of the People with Danita Mason-Hogans and Simona Goldin of the History, Race and a Way Forward commission.
  • 3:15-5:45 p.m. Eclipse: A Performative Experience by Culture Mill — An Embodied and Material Experience of UNC’s Architectural History (waitlisted).
  • 5-6 p.m. The Costs and Triumphs of Activism with Carolina students and alumni.

March 18

  • 9 a.m.-noon Site visits and local histories, including a conversation led by Danielle Hiraldo, director of the American Indian Center.
Two people standing behind a podium.

Patricia Parker and James Leloudis are co-chairs of the History, Race and a Way Forward commission. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

In a conversation with The Well, Leloudis and HRWF co-chair Patricia Parker discussed why they wanted to bring the conference here and why they want community members to attend.

Why did Carolina want to host a USS conference?

Parker: We knew that UNC-Chapel Hill would always be a part of this national, if not global, conversation on the legacies of racial slavery and how that history figures into our efforts to move forward. The Universities Studying Slavery consortium is a way for us to be a part of that national conversation.

Leloudis: The work that had been done here was often cited as one of the beginning points [of reckoning with slavery], in particular the class gift from the class of 2002, the Unsung Founders Memorial, and its dedication in 2005. This is a way of bringing that history of the consortium back around full circle to one of the places where it began.

What do you feel Carolina, in particular, can contribute to the conversation?

Parker: As a professor here at UNC-Chapel Hill who is a Black woman descendant of enslaved people, it’s vitally important to me to be a part of the University’s reckoning with that history. I study community-based leadership, and there are a lot of descendant communities who are thirsting for this knowledge. Their own families are coming to terms with some of that history and coming to healing. Healing figures very prominently in the process. Racialized slavery in the United States was a very traumatic historical event that still has our country reeling. I think for UNC-Chapel Hill to lead this conversation itself is healing. It is necessary work.

Leloudis: The history of this institution is so tightly intertwined with the history of the institution of racial slavery. They are utterly inseparable. And we need to take this opportunity to pause and reflect on that and the ways that it can help us imagine and create the sort of institution that we want to work in today. This conference gives us a chance collectively to do the historical work but also to do the work of imagining the future.

What do you hope participants will take away from the conference?

Parker: One of the things I want people to come away with, whether they’re in the Academy or in the community, is the sense that we’re in this work together and that there’s wisdom and expertise that come from all angles of vision on how we move forward together. I really hope people will make those connections and find ways to cross those boundaries, to create new collaborations for new projects.

Leloudis: We aspire for this conference to be a beginning and not an ending. I think the measure of its success will be the degree to which the conversations that are begun at the conference continue and become a  living part of the life of the University and all the various community stakeholders.

Read more stories on faculty and staff at TheWell.UNC.edu