Project Abstract

This grant will allow for the development of a team-taught, cross-listed course in History and Environmental Studies that focuses on the environmental impacts of the Atlantic slave trade. Russell Fielding (Environmental Studies) and Matthew Mitchell (History), both first-year faculty members at Sewanee, will team-teach. The class will be split between two semesters, Easter and Summer, with a half-credit session offered during each semester. This is a format that has been regularly used in other classes for quite some time at Sewanee. It will include both seminar and field components. We will propose this course to the CAPC at the beginning of the Advent Semester, 2016, in time for students to register for the half-credit seminar to be held during the Easter Semester. The course will operate at three distances, with regard to the geographical settings discussed. First, we will look at the history of slavery and its associated environment al changes in Southern Appalachia—a lesser-known region in the context of slavery, but one that has gained recent attention since the 2003 publication of Slavery in the American Mountain South by Virginia Tech sociologist, Wilma Dunaway. The next level of enquiry will be the Lower Mississippi Delta, colloquially known (and herein referred to) as the “Deep South,” and a place where the history of plantation-based slavery is well known. In this region, the scene of slaves working in fields to produce cash crops, primarily cotton, was common. Finally we will expand the geographical purview of the course to include slavery in the insular Caribbean—a region where the environment was arguably changed by the slave trade most profoundly. This application seeks funding to scout a short list of potential field site locations and summer salary for the period during which we will design the course.

Project Alignment with the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies

The underlying motivation behind the Atlantic Slave Trade was of course greed. This greed was itself place-based. Planters from Europe saw “virgin lands” in the Caribbean and the American continents and established a system by which these lands could be exploited. To make their system most efficient, the Europeans developed the “triangle trade” system that circulated commodities, manufactured goods, and human beings across the ocean connecting the Americas, Europe, and Africa. After American independence, the depletion of the soil in older plantation states such as Virginia and Maryland, combined with the opening of cotton cultivation in the newer states of the “Old Southwest,” created a massive forced migration of enslaved individuals within the United States as planters sought to take advantage of the economic possibilities of the cotton frontier. The entire system of slavery was place-based. Communication of laborers, goods, and commodities from each point of origin made the system possible.

As the “University of the South,” our legacy at Sewanee is connected to this system. Our university’s history commences at a time in our nation’s history when slavery was the foremost political and economic issue—an issue with which some of this university’s founders were intimately familiar. Sewanee is by no means alone in this regrettable past, as the MIT historian, Craig Steven Wilder made clear in his 2013 book, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. American universities are obliged teach their students about slavery and its social and environmental effects because in many cases their own histories are intertwined with that of slavery itself. Here at Sewanee, we have set the ambitious goal of becoming “a better, truer, stronger version of ourselves.” Confronting our history and the collective history of our culture will do much to further this cause.

By starting with a regional focus on Southern Appalachia and expanding outward to the Deep South and insular Caribbean, this course will connect students’ previously held notions about slavery—that is was primarily or exclusively practiced within the plantation system in the Lower Mississippi Delta—with experiences both locally and internationally. Students will read history recorded in landscapes of just how adaptable the institution of slavery was from one natural environment to another. The primary effect of this multi-site field experience will relate to the sense of scale. Students will witness the ecological effects of slavery within a variety of natural and cultural environments at varying scales of intensity, familiarity, and economy.

Project Impact

We expect the travel funds requested in this proposal to result in the selection of field locations for this class and specific sites within these locations that the class will visit. These will include historical plantation sites, reference sites to show undisturbed ecosystems, and museums and other education sites. In the Deep South and Caribbean, we will also scout locations such as guesthouses and restaurants to make sure that the logistics of the field class go smoothly. While supported by the summer salaries requested in this proposal we will develop the topics list, readings, and travel itineraries for both the seminar and field portions of the class.

As for assessment, we will confer with colleagues at both Sewanee and Yale (at the latter, specifically the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition) to further refine and hone the curriculum. We will also reach out to colleagues at Yale who may be interested in collaborative teaching—a prospect that has potential to bring Sewanee and Yale students together in the field and/or in the classroom. The impact on us, the faculty, will be profound. We personally feel an intense desire to facilitate students’ opportunities to confront the past as it is written on the landscape, specifically elements of the past that are uncomfortable and outside of their typical experience. Our individual backgrounds have prepared us to collaborate on this project. Matthew Mitchell is a historian who publishes and teaches extensively on the history of slavery in the Atlantic World. Russell Fielding is a geographer and assistant professor of environme ntal studies with research experience in the Caribbean since 2002. His work is both place-based and landscape-centric. Together, Fielding and Mitchell will present a curriculum that does equal justice to the landscapes of slavery and the human history that played out upon them.

The students, likewise, will gain a perspective that is likely to remain with them for some time. One might forget a description from a textbook but one is unlikely to soon forget the dank odor inside a crumbling sugar mill or the sight of a threshold at the entrance to a slave’s cottage, worn smooth by the daily passage of weary feet moving to or from a cotton field. As for community impact, Fielding knows from his own experience in the Caribbean that members of local communities there want to feel as though their voices are heard. The same is undoubtedly true for the communities with which we will interact in Southern Appalachia and the Deep South. By encouraging our students to listen (and teaching them how to actually do so!) we will ensure that they are present in a place where stories can be told to an audience that has traveled a long way to hear them.