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'On These Grounds': Library project reconstructs stories of enslaved people

The Unsung Founders Memorial pictured on UNC's North Quad on Nov. 2. The memorial represents an earlier effort to interrogate the University's history, similar to the efforts archivists at the Wilson Library are putting forth currently.

In 2005, Wilson Library curated a museum exhibit and digital exhibit that recognized the enslaved people who built the University.

Now, almost 16 years later, the library is leading efforts to reconstruct the lived experiences of enslaved individuals at and around the University.

UNC is one of five testing partners for the national project “On These Grounds: Slavery and the University.” The initiative launched in 2020 at Michigan State University and is now led by a team of digital history experts, archivists and historians from MSU, Georgetown University and the University of Virginia.

Research process

The project has created an opportunity for Wilson Library archivists to reexamine the materials in the University Archives and Southern Historical Collection through a lens that centers the experiences of enslaved people.

Wilson Library technical services archivist Laura Hart, who is working on the project at UNC, explained how "On These Grounds" has led archivists at Wilson to change the way they interact with documents in UNC’s collections.

“In our long-standing practices of describing slavery-era documents, we really have focused our attention on the documents themselves,” she said. “And the way I perceive it is, we were really, I think, describing for a very scholarly audience and presupposing what it was that they were looking for.”

Hart described a hypothetical scenario in which archivists examine a ledger kept by an enslaver. She explained how the archivists’ approach to that document, for this project’s purposes, would differ from their usual practices.

Historically, Hart said, the ledger's description would detail the date on the document, the content of the document — such as whether it contains the names or birth dates of enslaved people — and where in North Carolina the document originated.

“So, in this project, we would look at the same account ledger and describe the enslaved person’s life events that were recorded in that ledger,” Hart said.

The national project is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The stories that archivists uncover at UNC will ultimately contribute to a freely available data model that pulls from archival materials at several colleges and universities.

"I want that descriptive model and those tools to be able to kind of capture information that really brings to light the kind of the lived experiences of enslaved individuals who appear in those archival documents," said Emily Baldoni, the metadata librarian for digital and special collections at Georgetown University's Lauinger Library and a member of the national team working on the project.

Baldoni said the five testing partners will provide diverse perspectives about the experiences of enslaved people in relation to higher education.

“We kind of want to test the approach that's being developed on as many kinds of different types of materials as possible and also get a little bit of geographic diversity in there, too, with schools from different parts of the country,” Baldoni said.

Community impact

Centering the experiences of enslaved people allows UNC’s archivists to alter the nature of their work — but it also has powerful implications for the broader effort to document Black history in North Carolina.

Chaitra Powell, the African American collections and outreach archivist at Wilson Library and the project's manager at UNC, said "On These Grounds" pushes back against the notion that the Black past is unknowable.

She said it could be instructive for genealogists who are trying to construct family lineages, and it could also help broader and more diverse communities in Chapel Hill and Orange County understand how the trauma of slavery impacted their outcomes.

“If we center people differently, if we're able to pull out these pieces of information, you can get that narrative together,” Powell said. 

Powell said she also hopes the project will make some of the information in Wilson Library more available to the University and Chapel Hill communities.

The library houses many papers and materials that most community members don’t interact with on a regular basis, Powell said. This project will push the archivists to consider how the library can present the information in those materials in a more accessible and empathetic way.

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“The possibilities are really limitless,” Powell said about the impact of the project. “And I would say at the same time, there are also opportunities for joy and expression, celebration that people can see how they've survived or how their culture permeated the generations.”

"On These Grounds" exists alongside other initiatives to interrogate the University’s past. Other initiatives include the Commission on History, Race and A Way Forward, which examines the University’s history with race, and an honors course entitled “Slavery and the University," which brings the discussion to the classroom. 

But Hart said the library's project is unique in its approach to the individual lives and experiences of enslaved people.

“And so while we'll learn more about the University's relationship to slavery, we are hopeful to really uncover that lived experience," she said.

@emilyorland |