Like Harvard, Clemson, the University of Virginia, and other institutions of higher learning on either side of the Atlantic, Georgetown University has been grappling with the pivotal importance of slavery to its past. Here at Harvard, a donation from the slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr. helped to establish the law school; at Georgetown, the sale in 1838 of 272 of the school’s slaves infused the institution with funds necessary for its continued operation. As Georgetown historian Adam Rothman told the New York Times for a cover story this past Sunday, “the university owes its existence to this history.”
Rothman, the author of 2005’s Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South and Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery, published last year, is a member of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. The group has been working to document this past through means including the creation of the Georgetown Slavery Archive, a digital repository providing access to the material, and has convened events to involve the university community in discussions of how best to acknowledge and recognize Georgetown’s historical relationship with the institution of slavery.
At one such event, held yesterday in honor of D.C. Emancipation Day, Rothman spoke about that 1838 sale, and plantations run by the Jesuits at the university’s helm. In the course of his presentation, Rothman noted the challenge of engaging with documents that tell only one side of these stories: “What we so often lack,” he said, “is the perspective of enslaved people themselves.”
Beyond Freedom’s Reach is an effort to make one such perspective known. The book tells the true story of a newly freed New Orleans woman’s quest to rescue her children, who’d been kidnapped and enslaved in Cuba by her own former owners. Rose Herera’s years-long fight to bring her three children home demonstrates how a focus on individual lives can challenge many of our notions of how societies actually functioned on the ground. As Rothman notes, the book is part of a broader effort to force recognition of the humanity of those who stories like that of Georgetown may represent as mere lines on ledgers:
Historians have tended to write about slavery in the aggregate rather than to delve deeply into the experiences of particular enslaved people. This approach is understandable. It is usually impossible to construct substantial life histories of individual slaves from the meager scraps of archival material that typically document their existence. The exceptions are usually those extraordinary figures, such as Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery, achieved literacy, and became politically active in the antislavery movement. Recently, however, historians adopting the techniques of “microhistory” have illuminated the lifeworlds of lesser-known figures: the odyssey of a pair of West African dignitaries ensnared in the Atlantic slave trade; the family saga of a woman from Senegambia who was enslaved and freed in St. Domingue and whose descendants turned up in Louisiana, Mexico, Cuba, and Belgium; the religious revival sparked by a freedwoman in the Dutch Caribbean who preached among enslaved Africans and people of African descent; the liaisons of the Hemingses of Monticello; the career of a North Carolina slave who fought in the Union army and went on to become a legislator. Using microhistory to examine Atlantic slavery and emancipation is to view a hurricane through a pinhole. One cannot see the whole violent storm through a small aperture, but what can be seen comes across with great clarity and vivid detail on a human scale, which can lead to new insights into how people actually lived.
When yesterday’s D.C. event turned to the topic of reconciliation, Rothman shared his opinion that no degree of memorialization is sufficient. Through his work, though, he makes clear that the ultimate impossibility of a righting a historical wrong shouldn’t stop us from trying.