History course uncovers ‘archival silences’ of enslaved people

The Emory College of Arts and Sciences students who met every Tuesday night in Maria Montalvo’s U.S. history seminar this spring took on a challenge that can be a struggle for experienced historians.

In the class titled “Slavery and the Archive,” they tackled how to read into archival silences, connect small threads from rare or unconsidered primary sources and contextualize their findings, all to offer new stories and perspectives that include one from an enslaved woman from Emory’s own history.

Adding to the challenge was the need to conduct all of their research, and coursework, online.

“Learning this way can make you a more empathetic and critical thinker. It reinforces a simple but challenging notion: that your perception is not the only one,” Montalvo says.

It is the second spring that Montalvo has taught the course. A historian who studies slavery and capitalism, this is her second year as an assistant professor at Emory.

Students had weekly discussions about extensive readings exploring the limitations and opportunities to find records that center on enslaved people. They were required to produce original research by semester’s end, in part by examining Emory’s extensive collections in African American history in the Woodruff Library and Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.

The course’s focus on developing and sharpening skills in critical thinking, research and writing align with Emory’s excellence in the liberal arts and sciences.

“My goal is not to have them all become historians,” Montalvo says. “My goal is to help them understand how to read, learn and question effectively enough to become the best of anything they want to be.”

The work required that students have the skills to find legitimate sources and put their findings into context. Erica Bruchko, an Emory librarian specializing in African-American and U.S. history, came to one class to help students identify sources and understand the research process. She also created a resource guide, specific to the course, and could meet with students one-on-one.

“Recognizing how slavery has shaped the present, students are more interested than ever in using the library to explore these connections,” Bruchko says. “These sources, especially those documenting the voices of the enslaved, can be difficult to find and interpret, but students are well up for the challenge.” 

Despite the hard work, students say emphasis on acknowledging untold stories is especially welcome in a year still weighed down by a pandemic, racial unrest and remote learning.

For junior Lauren Mahoney, a biology major who plans to become a veterinarian, it also honed a new skill: the ability to have difficult conversations. In the class, she learned to have challenging conversations about how the history of slavery was long presented — through records of investors or those who owned enslaved people, not those who were enslaved.

“We all come at this topic with different perspectives and different plans, but we are all receptive to other ideas,” Mahoney says. “It’s very interesting because of the topic, but it’s just as interesting because we are able to have these discussions.”

The conversations took different shapes, based on the research done. Junior Bryn Walker spent last summer conducting remote research on the Georgia monuments erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, part of a planned honors thesis on the state’s role in such memorials.

In Montalvo’s course, though, the history major returned to the buildings that captured her attention as a first-year student on Emory’s original campus in Oxford, Georgia.

One of them was home to Catherine “Miss Kitty” Andrew Boyd, an enslaved women owned by the Methodist bishop who was Emory’s board chair in 1844.

“The story is he built that house for her to live in as a free woman, then she became the only Black person buried in Oxford City Cemetery,” Walker says. “When you look at it critically, it’s not a story about loyalty but a myth about just how free Black women really were to live.”

Similar research into the “everyday” pushback of enslaved women — putting pictures of Abraham Lincoln up in their quarters or putting energy into their limited social lives instead of field work — changed how junior Channelle Russell views the concept of freedom and resistance.

Unspooling those stories helped Russell, a history and English double major, create her own. In between responsibilities as incoming co-founder of Bloom at Emory and a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, Russell is plotting family histories of two characters in a speculative fiction novel she is developing, with special consideration of how they would resist.

For the course, she researched an act of gendered violence in an 1830s Jamaican text.

“It has me thinking, we have these sources, but what story can you tell from them? I want to create something persuasive and founded in a good argument,” she says.

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