By Dr. Alfred Brophy
I wrote some about this over at legalhistoryblog back in February. The University of Maryland has announced that Ira Berlin, one of our nation’s most distinguished historians, and a graduate student will teach a two-semester course for 30 undergraduates, which will research the University of Maryland’s connections to slavery. The Diamond Back, the University of Maryland’s student newspaper, has all the details. Sounds like an excellent course to me. The Diamond Back also has an editorial about this. The Brown Daily Herarld and the Examiner also had excellent stories on this. I think that course will be a great learning opportunity for the students and they’ll be able to fill in some big gaps in our knowledge of the university’s history, then contribute to the discussion on campus of what, if anything, should be done today. It will be most interesting to see where this all goes–what we find out about UM’s history with slavery and how we think that connects to contemporary discussions of race.
In 2007 and 2008, several legislatures (including Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, New Jersey, Florida) apologized for their connections to slavery. It’s surprising to me (in some ways) that in the state apologies for slavery last year academics, particularly historians, were notably absent. In every state except Maryland, that I can recall at least, politicians took the lead and did not draw on academics. (In Maryland some academics, like Ron Walters, testified before the legislature, as I recall.) It struck me at the time as an odd disconnect: historians have some expertise in this area. And perhaps legislatures should have sought them out–or perhaps historians should have sought out the legislature.
Historians, of course, have divided approaches to apologies. James Cobb at the University of Georgia, another very distinguished historian, wrote a piece for the New Republic online edition criticizing state legislatures’ apologies for slavery. (Here’s an earlier version from Cobb’s website; I can’t find a working link to the New Republic piece.) In the most recent American Scholar Gorman Beauchamp of the University of MIchigan also takes on apologies and in stronger terms than Cobb. On the other hand, I suspect that lots of historians will favor some sort of apology. Anyway, I thought it strange that more historians weren’t asked to testify as part of the apology debates. Their expertise is, of course, in the facts, not in contemporary morality and politics. But our nation’s history with slavery is, obviously, central to the case for apology.
But perhaps that’s because we academics work on rather different schedules and with different questions from politicians. It’s hard to know. At any rate, I look forward to hearing more about this. I hope to talk some more about apologies.