In October, assistant professor of art history, Dr. Rachel Stephens, and junior art history major Nadia DelMedico presented new research on slavery at The University of Alabama during a symposium, “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape,” sponsored by the University of Virginia and the Slave Dwelling Project. DelMedico’s and Stephens’ paper, “Slavery and its Built Environment at The University of Alabama as Revealed in the Basil Manly Diaries,” discusses typical activities of the University administrators, faculty and students as seen through the daily writings of the second president of UA. Most of the campus, with a few exceptions, was built by the time Manly arrived. Only a few of the early buildings now exist: the Gorgas Home; the observatory or Maxwell Hall; the guardhouse now known as “Little Round House” and the President’s mansion and its adjacent slave quarters.
Basil Manly, who served as UA president from 1837 to 1855, was also a Baptist evangelist and fervent supporter of slavery and secession. Serving the longest of any president in UA history, Manly had a significant influence on the school’s development during his 18-year term. According to DelMedico and Stephens, Manly actively promoted slavery as a positive good. His diaries reveal that he lent his personal slaves to other faculty on campus, he oversaw the University’s purchase of slaves, as well as the renting of slaves from their owners in the town of Tuscaloosa. Many of those slaves were used to construct buildings on the campus. DelMedico and Stephens said that the diaries show that enslaved people were “integral” to the University’s growth in this period. “It was so intriguing to learn, from a powerful insider’s perspective, about the daily management and operation of UA in its earliest days,” said Dr. Stephens.
DelMedico, who was the only undergraduate to present at the conference, commented on what she discovered while reading the diaries: “The young men on this campus were a rowdy, rebellious group, and this is evident in their interactions with the faculty, administration and enslaved individuals working at the university. We found a number of stories in which students would pull pranks on the faculty; while these were funny to read about, they often implicated the university slaves, who were the ones to face the harshest punishments for the students’ actions.”
Stephens’ and DelMedico’s paper is the culmination of many months of research. In the spring of 2017, DelMedico, who is enrolled in UA’s Randall Research Scholars Program, presented her preliminary research, overseen by Dr. Stephens, on slave dwellings on the antebellum UA campus at the undergraduate poster session during the 22nd Annual Graduate Student Symposium in Art History and at the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Conference (URCA), both held at UA. DelMedico’s poster titled, “Too Close to Home: The History of Slavery on the University of Alabama Campus,” was selected as the second place poster winner in the Harrison Awards at the art history symposium. She won third place in the Arts and Humanities category of the URCA poster sessions. Dr. Stephens, who has taught at UA since 2013, is author of the forthcoming book, Selling Andrew Jackson: Ralph E. W. Earl and the Politics of Portraiture.
Researchers from more than 60 schools including University of Texas at Austin, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of Mississippi, George Washington University, University of South Carolina, Clemson University, Rutgers University and Johns Hopkins University, also presented their findings at the conference on UVA’s campus. These and other schools across the South are looking into their history of slavery. The University of South Carolina and the University of Virginia have established research commissions and provided funding to faculty to further this research. Dr. Stephens noted that there are similarities among the histories of several of these campuses, as well as research approaches. “We found that our research as well as the history of slavery at UA dovetailed pretty closely with researchers at, and the history of other universities. Although UVA has much more documentation than we have, for example, their history very closely parallels that of our campus. In addition, their researchers undertook the same things that Nadia and I hope to undertake, which includes reading and analysis of a range of documents that reflect the full inclusive antebellum history of UA.”
Although there are several ongoing research projects on the history of slavery at The University of Alabama, UA has not yet publicly supported this research or backed a commission. The University of Alabama Faculty Senate formally apologized for slavery on the pre-Civil War campus in 2004, and erected a marker near the graves of two slaves on campus. Since then, faculty and students have increasingly been researching different aspects of UA’s history of slavery.
On her experience at the conference, DelMedico said, “I learned so much at the conference. Dr. Stephens and I were able to hear from researchers at a number of different schools and learn about what kinds of research they’re doing, how they’re publicizing this information, and how they’re handling the challenges of researching slavery. Now that I’m back in Tuscaloosa, I have so many different ideas about where I want to take this research.”