News

Penn, complicit in slavery and displacement must engage in reparative action

By Abdul-Aliy Muhammad | August 29, 2019

The University of Pennsylvania’s legacy is interlocked with the commodification and brutalization of enslaved people. Far from the glossy imprint of grandeur and the lore of exceptionalism lives the University's complex history of complicity in the institution of slavery, despite previous claims by University officials that Penn was not directly involved in the slave trade.

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Previously, a Penn spokesperson has said that, though the University had explored potential connections to slavery "several times over the past few decades," it had never found any "direct University involvement with slavery or the slave trade." Ultimately, the University corrected the record after the student-led Penn and Slavery Project produced clear evidence of Penn’s complicity. The Penn and Slavery Project upended a denial that had been gripped tightly by school administrators for over a decade. When Brown University and other universities began to wrestle with their historical participation in slavery, Penn unequivocally stated there was “no connection” between the University and this grotesque institution. The project began in 2017 when a group of undergraduate students embarked on an independent study to see if there was a connection. Read more...

The missing pieces of America’s education

By Joe Heim | August 28, 2019

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For this project on how students learn about slavery in American schools, The Washington Post asked noted historians to write an essay on aspects of slavery that are misunderstood, poorly taught or not covered at all in the nation’s classrooms. From the cruel separation of families to the resistance by enslaved people and the widespread enslavement of Native Americans, these contributions address gaps in our common knowledge about what the practice of slavery has meant for America.

In teaching the history of American slavery accurately, it is essential to teach about African Americans’ resistance to slavery. By focusing on resistance, educators reveal as false the myth that slavery was a benign institution and that enslavers were fundamentally kind. If either were true, the enslaved would not have resisted. Read more...

Teaching America’s truth

By Joe Heim | August 28, 2019

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Pacing his classroom in north-central Iowa, Tom McClimon prepared to deliver an essential truth about American history to his eighth-grade students. He stopped and slowly raised his index finger in front of his chest.

“Think about this. For 246 years, slavery was legal in America. It wasn’t made illegal until 154 years ago,” the 26-year-old teacher told the 23 students sitting before him at Fort Dodge Middle School. “So, what does that mean? It means slavery has been a part of America much longer than it hasn’t been a part of America.”

It is a simple observation, but it is also a revelatory way to think about slavery in America and its inextricable role in the country’s founding, evolution and present. Ours is a nation born as much in chains as in freedom. A century and a half after slavery was made illegal — and 400 years after the first documented arrival of enslaved people from Africa in Virginia — the trauma of this inherited disease lingers. Read more...

Daina Berry to Discuss African American History & Resilience

By Tina Giuliano | July 9, 2019

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When she was 6 years old, Daina Berry experienced her first moment of discrimination. In that moment, she used her knowledge of history to defend herself.

“I gave my first history lesson when I was 6 years old,” Berry said. “I was called the N-word by my neighborhood bully.”

Her mom marched her down to the bully’s house, and they told the bully about the resilience of African Americans through history. In college, a similar experience happened when a professor made derogatory comments about African Americans in class, and Berry used her historical knowledge to challenge him.

“So, those were definitely two negative experiences that made me want to become a historian,” Berry said.

At 3:30 p.m. today, July 10, in the Hall of Philosophy, Berry will present “Soul Values and American Slavery” as part of the African American Heritage House Speaker Series. Her 2017 book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, is the material she will draw upon throughout the lecture. Read more...

Daina Ramey Berry and “The Price for their Pound of Flesh”

By Nicole O'Connell | May 3, 2019

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On April 11 Dr. Daina Ramey Berry spoke on “Slavery and the Valuation of Souls” at Worcester State University. Her talk was part of the Honors Author Series and the Sarah Ellen Sharbach Memorial Lecture.
Berry, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, discussed the costs associated with slavery and other topics covered in her 2017 book, The Price for their Pound of Flesh.

It took her 10 years to write the book and seven to find the data. In total, she discovered around 80,000 individual slave prices. In today’s money, an average enslaved person would sell for $30,000 to $300,000, depending on the calculations used. However, Berry did not just want to provide these numbers, she wanted to provide context for the data.

“You can’t talk about the numbers and not talk about the people,” she said.

She focused on enslaved people’s voices and questioned, “How did they respond to being treated as a commodity?” Berry also spoke about “soul value,” how enslaved people made sense of and how they valued their souls.

Berry gave examples of different stories of enslaved people, such as a three-day-old baby that was for sale. On average, enslaved people changed hands four times. Read more...

Ancestry.com ad pulled, criticized for sugarcoating slavery

By Janell Ross | April 21, 2019

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The Ancestry.com ad begins with a couple - a young black woman and young white man - clad in mid 19th century clothing, running through what looks like an alley. The couple stops. The man holds up a ring.

“Abigail,” the man says, “We can escape...Will you leave with me.” The young woman gets out only a fraction of one word, “I...,” before the point of this ad becomes clear. Ancestry.com, which claims to have the world’s largest consumer DNA database, says stories like 'Abigail's' would be lost to history if people didn't trace their roots using their service.

In the days since it began to air in the United States, critics have described it as a sanitized and inaccurate depiction of American life designed to obscure the brutality of slavery. In doing so, historians and advertising industry insiders say, the ad campaign illuminates a set of very modern, ongoing American problems with race.

Late Thursday, Ancestry pulled the ad from its YouTube channel, scuttled a TV airing schedule and late Friday offered more information about the thought processes behind the ad. Read more...

Your Ancestors Were Slaves. Who Owns the Photos of Them?

By Jennifer Schuessler | March 22, 2019

The haunting daguerreotypes of seven enslaved men and women taken in South Carolina in 1850 have long been an awkward matter at Harvard.

Made in a portrait studio at the request of Louis Agassiz, a renowned Harvard biologist out to prove the inferiority of people of African descent, the images have been the subject of scholarly exposes and intellectual property skirmishes since they resurfaced in 1976 in the attic of the university’s anthropology museum. Now they are the subject of a lawsuit brought by a Connecticut woman who says she is a descendant of two of the enslaved people in the photographs, and wants what she sees as stolen family property back.

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The lawsuit involves charges of profiteering and exploitation, calling the images “spoils of theft” and Harvard’s “dominion” over them itself the equivalent of slavery.

But to scholars, it also raises broader moral questions. Who owns African-American history: the generally white-dominated institutions that house many of its traces, or the descendants of the enslaved? And who, if anyone, should control — and profit from — it? Read more...

What Are the Biggest Problems Women Face Today?

By Politico Magazine | March 8, 2019

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One of the greatest challenges women in the U.S. and women throughout the world face today are increasing rates of maternal mortality. According to the World Health Organization, 830 women die every day from “preventable causes related to pregnancy.” These statistics are even more staggering in developing countries and among women of color in the United States. Black women in particular are the most affected, dying at a ratio of 25.1 deaths per 100,000. According to the Journal of Perinatal Education, the rates for black women did not improve between 1980 and 1990, and these rates are not much better today. Some believe such disparities occur because of a racially divided society in which black women experience higher levels of stress and marginalization causing many of their health concerns to go unrecognized. This leads to untimely and preventable deaths. Read more...

UT Professor’s New Book Explores the Economic Value of Slaves In American History

By Cat Cardenas | March 1, 2019

UT history professor Daina Ramey Berry has dedicated her professional life to filling in the gaps of American history. Growing up in an African-American family just outside of Sacramento, California, she was quick to notice that her ancestors’ history was often absent from her schoolbooks. But she didn’t have to look far for an education on her roots: Her mother was an academic and activist who had participated in the 1963 March on Washington and her father was an engineering professor who became the second African-American to join UC Davis’ faculty. Since becoming a historian herself, Berry has taken matters into her own hands, writing dozens of articles and two books on gender and slavery in the 19th century.

Her latest book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, explores the economic value of slaves during their lives and after death as they were sold to be studied in American medical schools. This comes at the end of a journey that led Berry to archives across the country to study the different ways slaves were valued at auction, in medical records, and in insurance policies. The book is the recipient of the 2018 Hamilton Book Award—UT’s highest literary honor. Berry spoke with the Alcalde about her book and her upcoming projects. Read more...

Engineering meets history with Daina Ramey Berry

By Alexandra George | February 18, 2019

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Engineering often involves interpretation of a problem, data, or methods to reach creative solutions. Similarly, history involves interpretation: understanding previous events that can teach us valuable lessons to help shape the future. Both engineers and historians are hard at work to solve some of the most challenging problems facing us today, though in different ways.

As part of Black History Month activities at Carnegie Mellon, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) recently co-hosted the visit of distinguished historian and acclaimed author Professor Daina Ramey Berry. She is the Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History at UT Austin, and speaks and writes about various dimensions of slavery, especially women and slavery. Her work seeks to humanize a group of people who are often treated as objects by bringing to light individuals and their personal stories. Read more...