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UNC hosts 2023 Universities Studying Slavery Conference


Twice a year, the Universities Studying Slavery consortium hosts a public conference with a panel filled with dozens of speakers to discuss, collaborate and learn.   

This year, the University Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward will be hosting the 2023 Universities Studying Slavery Conference at UNC.

The four-day program, titled “At This Place: History, Race, and a Way Forward,” will be held from March 15 to 18. The conference will feature speakers from various academic institutions dedicated to creating a just and equitable future.

The Universities Studying Slavery consortium was founded by the University of Virginia in 2016 and consists of over 90 institutions in the United States, Canada, Columbia, Scotland, Ireland and England to promote collaboration and examine histories of slavery and racism. 

The 2023 conference was planned by the University Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward, which provides recommendations to the chancellor and examines archives and history to develop teaching curriculums for the University. 

Patricia Parker, co-chairperson of the University commission, said it is important to note the difficult conversations that might arise during the conference. 

“There are things that have been left unsaid, and to say them in a place that seems productive, and where people are coming together to try to find a way forward—that’s a part of our commission’s title—we’re in a way forward,” she said. 

Jim Leloudis, the other co-chairperson of the Commission, said one of the main goals of the conference is to be an inclusive conversation to both teach and tell a complete and honest history of the University, including ways to reckon with the lasting legacies of that history.

He said the conference is a chance to learn from peers — in both times of success and times when there needs to be a redevelopment of an approach to instruction and teaching. 

Allison Upshaw, an assistant professor of voice at Stillman College, is to perform “Voices of the Enslaved: a Dramatic Interpretation” at the conference. 

As a Black woman, Upshaw said she considers her role as an educator an opportunity to create a space where her own stories of art and identity can be told in a safe community. 

“I would love to give voice in academia to sounds and words that aren’t always privileged in the academy," she said. "The academy is what it is—it is about education, it is about written knowledge. So we don’t always appreciate the knowledge that is oral, and we don’t always appreciate the wisdom that comes from people that are not educated."

Upshaw said she is looking forward to witnessing research on African American communities being presented. 

Simona Goldin, a research associate professor of public policy at UNC, will be co-presenting “Race and Racism at the University of the People” with Danita Mason-Hogans, a member of the commission. She will also include five of her students in the presentation because much of the content will be focused on the work created in her first-year seminar.

Goldin said her course analyzed writings, songs and newspaper articles written by former Lincoln High School students to better understand the culture of segregated schools.

“After we did that, my colleague Danita Mason-Hogans came to class and talked about her family’s seven generations of life here and the ways in which her family is really interwoven with the university,” she added. “And those things led to my students writing their portraiture assignments.” 

Ned Benton, who is co-presenting with Judy-Lynne Peters on “University Enslavement Beyond the Campus,” has contributed to the Northeast Slavery Records Index through his research at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

With the NESRI, Benton said scholars now have access to thousands of records that identify individual enslavers as well as narratives and biographies of enslaved people. 

Benton also said the project was started in 2018 to identify enslavement records. After showing his research to fellow faculty members and students, he decided a method of organization was necessary for the project.

The NESRI currently consists of more than 64,000 records and continues to expand.

“At USS we will be explaining our project to produce university reports that focus beyond the campus – how enslavement modeled and normalized by university leaders can lead to graduates who then engage in slavery back in their communities,” Benton said in an email statement.

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Leloudis said both UNC and UVA have taken leading roles in planning the conference over the years.

“We are a public institution and we take that very, very seriously,”  Leloudis said. “It’s in our DNA to engage in these kinds of difficult issues, and to provide leadership and move us all forward in the way that we reckon with them.”

Anyone is welcome to register and should do so by March 3.