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A Maryland college honors the lives of enslaved people

Watch more: Poet uses runaway slave ads to tell a story of resistance

Transcript

Hari Sreenivasan:

Yesterday, St. Mary's College in Maryland held a virtual commemoration unveiling a unique memorial recognizing its role in the history of slavery, entitled "From Absence to Presence: the Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland."

The college is the latest of several institutions to confront and reconcile with a legacy of slavery. The unveiling at St. Mary's capped a yearslong journey that began with an archaeological discovery on the campus grounds.

NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has more.

Ivette Feliciano:

So what was your initial reaction when you found out that archeologists had uncovered slave artifacts on the college grounds?

Tuajuanda Jordan:

It gave me pause, actually. The college is located in southern Maryland, which has a history of slavery. But in my mind, I had hoped or in my heart I had hoped that we would not have been engaged in that at all.

Ivette Feliciano:

Tuajuanda Jordan is the president of St. Mary's College of Maryland. Early in her tenure, the college began surveying the campus grounds in preparation for a new stadium complex. In 2016, school archaeologists uncovered evidence of lives once lived on the same grounds that students walk on today. There were 18th and 19th century ceramics, tobacco pipes, and bricks and nails that suggest slave quarters once stood on this very site.

Tuajuanda Jordan:

It didn't make me feel very happy. But it was important that we recognize that.

Ivette Feliciano:

The stadium site was relocated. In its place would be an installation commemorating the lives of enslaved people who toiled on this land long before and even after the founding of the college in 1840.

Tuajuanda Jordan:

Where we're located, the community is focused on how the world was from the perspective of the colonists. But an important aspect that was missing from my point of view was the representation from the enslaved people and they did not have a voice. And this gave an opportunity to present the history of the region from a different perspective.

Ivette Feliciano:

In October of this year work began on the installation. There are no statues, no paintings.

Norman Lee:

So we were really kind of interested in this idea of slave quarters being a very powerful metaphor.

Ivette Feliciano:

Architects Norman Lee, Shane Allbritton along with poet Quenton Baker, collaborated on the project.

Norman Lee:

Angela Davis has a very powerful quote talking about how slave quarters were really the only place where slaves could kinda exist and kind of be human in the sense that they were able to remove themselves from the gaze of slave owners. So, at the same time, they were essentially in a prison. The slave quarters themselves were kind of a symbol of empowerment because they actually live their private lives.

Ivette Feliciano:

The designers pulled historical documents, 18th and 19th century slave folklore and site specific archaeological artifacts to present a history that still remains incomplete. The structure is made of wooden slats and reflective stainless steel etched with the poetry of Quenton Baker.

Shane Allbritton:

Because of the reflection of the sculpture, it becomes an immersive experience in that the viewer is injected into the storyline through that reflection, nothing resonates with people more in the visual arts than, than the human form. And here we are making the viewer that human form, which forces them to pay attention and forces confrontation between the past and the present.

Ivette Feliciano:

For his part in the project, Baker used the language of runaway slave ads from St. Mary's county. Those words became the poetry etched into the steel.

Quenton Baker:

It's an unthinkable reality to live your life as property. And so what I hope the language does is that it brings forth the reality of people as property and the reality of the interiority of individuals who live through this, who still loved and cared and laughed and hurt and bled and broke and existed in a reality of nonexistence. That's an impossible thing to think about and an impossible thing to consider. But that was also what happened.

Ivette Feliciano:

St. Mary's College is not the only institution coming to terms with its legacy of slavery. In addition to a number of other steps, Georgetown University now offers preferential admission to descendants of enslaved people held by the university. The University of Virginia created a consortium of schools to research and address their historical ties perpetuating slavery.

Ivette Feliciano:

This is a moment right now where a lot of higher ed institutions are trying to grapple with their legacies of slavery. Do you feel there's an appropriate way to memorialize this history?

Tuajuanda Jordan:

I don't think there's one way by which to memorialize the history, everyone has to do what feels right to them. I think the, there's an improper way to do it, and that is to not tell the full story.

Ivette Feliciano:

Some might say the journey to this commemorative has been a passion project for St. Mary's College of Maryland. Students were engaged in the archaeological dig. There are courses and special projects exploring this period of slavery. And the community helped decide who would design the art installation. Jordan sees pursuing this history as a duty of a higher education institution.

Tuajuanda Jordan:

When you tell the history of a place and of course, as life evolves, perspectives change. But they don't change as much when you are inclusive and the telling of that history and you lend a voice to those who have been silenced in the past and that this commemorative lent a voice to the enslaved people, and that should set us on the path to do better in this country.

Hari Sreenivasan: To hear the poetry read by Quenton Baker at yesterday's unveiling visit PBS.org slash NewsHour.

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