students looking at slavery archival materials on computer screen
Category: Fall 2020, Georgetown Magazine

Title:Alumna lends expertise to Georgetown slavery archive project

Author: Chelsea Burwell (G'16)
Date Published: November 18, 2020

In conjunction with Michigan State University and the University of Virginia, Georgetown is continuing its commitment to slavery reconciliation by expanding access to these institutions’ slavery-related archive material through the “On These Grounds” project. This collaborative initiative will implement a novel approach to connecting thousands of archival items across the universities, including letters and bills of sale. In addition, the linked-data approach will use context and events as guides to paint a more comprehensive view of the lived histories and backgrounds of the enslaved communities at these institutions.

“On These Grounds” is financially supported by gifts from alumni and a $550,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has funded other archival and digital humanities efforts across the three universities. While colleges and universities have distinct approaches to examining and interpreting their individual histories as slavery-complicit institutions, Dean of Georgetown University Library Harriette Hemmasi says that the project’s methodology will enable a broader understanding of the similarities and differences in these shared histories. With its focus on events recorded in the archives, the project will enhance the ability of scholars and the public to access and analyze these historical records and will allow descendants of those enslaved to gain a more dynamic picture of their ancestors’ lives.

“The most important part of this project is that we are opening and connecting the archives in ways never before possible,” Hemmasi says. “In the past, we looked at each archive as if it were a separate, unique entity. With this model, however, researchers and the public will have the ability to examine and compare a wide range of archives to reconstruct a more comprehensive history, while also being able to delve more deeply into individual records. As the archives are allowed to speak, they will tell us the stories that shaped not only the lives of our institutions but, more importantly, the lives of those enslaved at our institutions,” Hemmasi adds.

Sharon Leon (C’97), associate professor of history and digital humanities at Michigan State, birthed the idea for “On These Grounds” and now serves as the project director. As an American Studies major, Leon learned to examine critical questions about American culture and heritage.

Her role in this project connects to her first encounters with Georgetown’s slavery archives during her sophomore year, when she “worked with primary sources from archival materials related to the Maryland Province Jesuits” as part of a digital humanities project she and her fellow American Studies students conducted.

“In existing scholarship, the scope is really about the Jesuits and why they did what they did. Now it’s our job to expand that lens and find out as much as we can about the enslaved community, about their families, and about the conditions in which they lived,” says Leon.

Thus far, Leon has researched about 1,200 individuals living between 1717 and 1838, including Henny, who was a midwife and George and Flora, who lost three of their six children in one year due to a smallpox outbreak in the early 1790s.

Beyond her expertise in digital humanities, Leon says she feels obligated to take on this project because of her family’s legacy as Georgetown alumni.

“My father not only attended and worked at Georgetown, but my father’s family was from colonial Southern Maryland,” Leon says. “So I’m certain that my father’s family was on the ground with the very enslaved people I’m learning about.”

Hemmasi and Leon emphasize that the work to learn more about the enslaved communities at Georgetown falls on the shoulders of the entire university community.

“Grappling with the history of slavery at colleges and universities is a contemporary issue. These institutions multiplied access to privileged white people and limited equitable access to the descendants of the enslaved in a way that has had lasting consequences,” Leon says. “Therefore, this is everybody’s problem, but especially my problem as an alumna. My family didn’t pay tuition, but this work is my tuition. This is my ongoing debt.”

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