Slavery Symposium Aims to Spark Dialogue

Facing the Past; Freeing the Future - Slavery's Legacy, Freedom's PromiseNearly 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, said John d’Entremont, the Theodore H. Jack Professor of History.

“We’ve never really faced the enormity of slavery,” he added. “That is one of the reasons why slavery’s shadow is so long. We will never solve it unless we talk about it.”

The Randolph professor hopes an upcoming symposium will help with the healing process. In conjunction with Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, the College will host “Facing the Past, Freeing the Future: Slavery’s Legacy, Freedom’s Promise” on April 3–5. More than 20 scholars, performers, and descendants of former slaves will address a variety of topics to help attendees understand slavery’s roots, history, and legacy.

The symposium grew out of conversations related to a partnership that the College formed with Poplar Forest last year. d’Entremont said the title reflects the hope that participants, and the nation, can move past slavery’s legacy. “We want our descendants to be able to say we have truly put slavery behind us,” he said. “They won’t be able to say that unless we face the reality of slavery and what it did to people, and the consequences of slavery and racism.”

Jeffrey Nichols, executive director of Poplar Forest, said understanding the life of the enslaved community at Thomas Jefferson’s plantation near Lynchburg will allow the organization to represent the site’s full history. “We feel that exploring this area in some detail is a very important part of that process for us,” he said.

Participating speakers include Henry Wiencek, a journalist and historian who is well known for his writings about America’s founding fathers and slavery, and Annette Gordon-Reed, a Harvard Law School professor and the author of two books about Sally Hemmings, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson. The website contains the full schedule of the events, which are free and open to the public.

d’Entremont hopes that members of the community will come not only to learn, but also to start their own discussions with neighbors and new friends. “I hope they will forge relationships with people of different backgrounds and reach across whatever gulf has been separating them,” he said. “We can’t meaningfully go together into the future unless we face the things that have been keeping us apart in our past.”