VA: Nearly 150 years after slavery was
abolished in the United States, its legacy still persists in racism,
inequality and a general fear of discussing the role slavery played in the
building of America. Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and Randolph College are
partnering to host a three-day symposium April 3-5 designed to help aid in the
understanding of slavery’s roots and history and the impact its
legacy continues to have on the nation.
Facing the Past, Freeing the Future: Slavery’s Legacy, Freedom’s
Promise is free and open to the public.
The program, which includes panel discussions,
presentations and a tour of Poplar Forest, was designed to bring together
historians, archaeologists, performance artists, students, scholars and members
of the African American and general communities to explore the topic of slavery
in America and discuss the shadow it has cast far into the nation’s
“Our goal for the symposium is to explore ways in which we can
convey information about American racial slavery and how its legacy affects our
world today; to learn how descendants of enslaved individuals discover and
share their ancestry and cultural heritage within their families; and to
discuss how historians have interpreted slavery to the public and how we can
expand that dialogue to be more inclusive and engaging to underserved
audiences,” said Jeffrey L. Nichols, president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson’s
The symposium will feature a breadth of scholars,
artists and community members who will perform, lecture and
participate in panel discussions. Audience input will be encouraged in an
effort to stimulate a mutually educational dialogue.
“Slavery was not just one of many things that occurred in
American history. It was absolutely central to that history and fundamental in
creating the kind of culture and society that took shape as the United States,”
said John d’Entremont, the Theodore H. Jack Professor of History at Randolph
College and a key participant in the symposium. “It was not something that was
thrust upon unwilling, conscience-stricken Americans; it was sought after,
embraced and expanded with an enthusiasm that fully matched its potential for
profit. In 1776 one out of every five Americans was owned by another American.
Slavery was not something that happened to America; it was something that America
did to itself.”
Speakers and events included in the symposium feature a mix of
national and local experts. Harvard Law School’s Annette Gordon-Reed, who is
the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The
Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family , and Thomas Jefferson and Sally
Hemings: An American Controversy, will moderate a panel discussion
with descendants of enslaved Virginians. She will also close the symposium with
a call to action.
Other participants include one of American’s most distinguished
historians of the sectional conflict, William Freehling, author of the
magisterial two-volume Road
to Disunion, as well as George Mason University’s Spencer Crew, the
former director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in
Cincinnati and former head of the National Museum of American History. Syracuse
University professor Theresa Singleton will lead a discussion on archaeology as
a window into the world of the enslaved. Henry Wiencek, a nationally known
journalist and independent scholar, will also speak at the symposium. Wiencek
has written three books on slavery and its legacy.
Panel discussions will include representatives of several local
organizations, including Many
Voices-One Community, a city-sponsored group whose mission is to
create a racially equitable community where race and ethnicity are not
predictors of success in any aspect of life, and Coming to the Table, an associate
organization of Eastern Mennonite University founded by descendants of enslaved
people and slaveholders in partnership with the Center for Justice and
Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Performances written and performed by local writers and actors will round out
the program of events.
“It’s said that we’re known by the things we remember. But it is
equally true that we reveal ourselves by the things we choose to forget,”
Randolph’s d’Entremont said. “For too long, we as a nation have chosen to
forget a past anchored in slavery and saturated in racism—whether because it
pains us or makes us uncomfortable or because it complicates the sunny image we
wish to have of ourselves. We pay for this amnesia with an either incomplete or
distorted understanding of our past, which inevitably dims our understanding of
many of the most nagging social problems of the present.”
For a complete listing of events, please see www.randolphcollege.edu/slaverysymposium.
Admission to all events is free and open to the public. However, registration
is required for the tours of Poplar Forest.
About Poplar Forest
One of only two homes Thomas Jefferson designed for his personal
use, the Poplar Forest retreat was the place where Jefferson “came to indulge
in the life of the mind and renew his personal creativity.” Jefferson and his
wife, Martha, inherited the Bedford County plantation known as Poplar Forest
from her father in 1773. When his presidency ended in 1809, Jefferson visited
the retreat three or four times a year, often staying for several months at a
time during planting seasons.
Designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the
Interior, and nearly lost to development, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest
plantation in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains was rescued in 1984 by
a group of local citizens who sought to preserve it for the cultural and
educational benefit of the public. Poplar Forest was opened to the public for
the first time in 1986, in its “before restoration” state. Today, the
neoclassical architecture of the octagonal house has been returned to Mr.
Jefferson’s design. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has recognized
the meticulous research and restoration efforts with its highest award, and the
plantation has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to
Poplar Forest offers a unique opportunity to observe a “live” archaeological
dig and historic restoration in progress, as efforts to reveal and restore
Thomas Jefferson’s vision for his personal retreat continue. For more
information, please see www.poplarforest.org.
About Randolph College
Located in Lynchburg, Virginia, Randolph College is a nationally
recognized, private, liberal arts and sciences institution known for its
excellent academic program, nationally ranked professors, rich
traditions and close, diverse community. Randolph features an innovative
learning community where a classic liberal arts education intersects with
practical preparation for a rapidly changing world. Founded in 1891 as
Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Randolph offers academic and co-curricular
programs designed to challenge students to develop their intellectual and
creative talents and pursue educational opportunities in and out of the college
community. The College’s motto, Vita
abundantior (“the life more abundant”), expresses its
historical emphasis on the importance of a quality liberal arts education to a
rich, full life. To learn more see www.randolphcollege.edu.