To further explore the historical role of slavery at their institutions, Hollins welcomed representatives from colleges and universities around the country for the spring meeting of Universities Studying Slavery (USS), April 12 – 14.
Hollins, one of nearly 40 USS member schools, hosted the semi-annual meeting to discuss strategies, collaborate on research, and learn from one another.
“I think all of us involved in making this conference possible know it was the right decision for our campus to host this event as it has been our goal from the beginning to be at the forefront of the Universities Studying Slavery movement,” said Jon Bohland, associate professor of international studies and chair the Hollins Heritage Committee, which promotes campus-wide dialogue on issues of collective memory, diversity, and reconciliation. He paid tribute to the student activists who served as the catalyst for the committee’s creation and have subsequently undertaken a number of projects to further its mission. “It was students that demanded that our university openly acknowledge our past connections to enslavement and begin to find ways to reconcile that history. It is as a result of [their] direct action that hard questions are being asked, long-lost names are being found, classes are being taught, conferences are being held, and we can begin to honor these previously unacknowledged founders and supporters of the university.”
“Reckoning with these issues is no easy task,” Hollins President Pareena Lawrence added at the spring meeting’s opening event on Thursday, April 12. “But if we are to grow and evolve as institutions of higher learning, we cannot ignore or hide from our past. Indeed, at the very least we owe the enslaved who built and labored for our colleges and universities the fundamental decency of recognition and gratefulness. And in their memories, we must use that knowledge and understanding to promote diversity and inclusivity.
“We cannot even come close to repaying our debt or making amends,” she continued, “but through our discussions and research, we can take vital steps to ensure we undertake what social scientists call ‘historical justice.’ Current and future generations will closely examine how we respond to our responsibilities to bring historical justice to the enslaved and honor their unrecorded and unrecognized contributions to our colleges and universities.”
USS organizes multi-institutional cooperation as part of an effort to facilitate mutual support in the pursuit of common goals. It also allows participating institutions to work together as they address both historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education and in campus communities as well as the complicated legacies of slavery in modern American society.
“While it is impossible to completely repair the damage and impact of enslavement, we have a responsibility in society, especially in higher education, to fully examine our history and put energies toward addressing the impact of the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery,” Idella Glenn, Hollins’ special advisor on inclusivity and diversity, told the opening session audience. “What does this mean to our universities? How does this remembering and repair manifest?”
Glenn said that Hollins had “literally and figuratively dug into our past…to uncover the untold history of Hollins University. Indeed, some of the things dug up are not easy to look at, and may even cause pain and discomfort, but we must deal with the pain and discomfort if we are to heal and move forward. I especially applaud the courage of our students, faculty, and staff who have earnestly taken on this difficult work.”
Glenn noted that the investigations and conversations at Hollins are helping to inform the breadth and scope of memorialization, which includes but is not limited to interactive education on campus (information kiosks, walking tours guided by downloadable apps, and student creation of a mass mural) and community outreach in the Roanoke Valley (lecture series, scholarships, and grant-funded programs that impact the lives of young people).
“I have come to the knowledge that this work of digging into our past and reconciling our history is foundational to authentic diversity, equity, and inclusion work,” Glenn said.
Among the highlights of the USS spring meeting at Hollins were sessions devoted to strengthening historically black colleges and universities; collective wisdom workshops for small colleges and liberal arts universities as well as research universities; and discussions among traditionally Baptist colleges and universities focused on developing common research agendas and collaborative practices.