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Locating Slavery’s Legacies at The University of Alabama

The legacies of slavery are everywhere at the University of Alabama … if you look for them, as these students discovered.

By Dr. Rachel Stephens

The ideas expressed in this post are solely the views of the author based on her experience and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Alabama. 

The legacies of slavery are everywhere at the University of Alabama (UA) and also simultaneously invisible. As the last southern state university to desegregate, the university and the Civil Rights struggles on its campus in Tuscaloosa, particularly Governor George Wallace’s famed “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” are well known. The institution’s deep engagement with slavery, its conversion to a military institute in part in support of the Confederacy, and indeed, its entire problematic racial history leading up to the “The Stand,” are much less visible. When the undergraduate students in my American Architecture course in the fall of 2023 began considering the Locating Slavery’s Legacies project, many of them had no awareness of the types of information they would soon discover. Almost none of the twenty-six students in the class had critically considered the history of the University. In leading the class through these discoveries, I found that a simple scratch at the surface coupled with critical thought revealed an enormous, often untold, history. At the same time, students found that the research required by this project both pushed them to learn new methods but was also sometimes difficult to complete. 

Like many similar institutions, Alabama has not fully embraced the opportunity to turn a critical gaze on its own past. Of course, there is much to consider at an institutional level regarding this objective, donors and funding chief among them. Many of my students’ entries about parts of our campus that reflect the legacies of slavery represent information that has not yet been compiled in this way. Portraits of enslavers, segregationists, and anti-Civil Rights advocates hang in the halls of buildings around campus as exemplars of the institution’s history. Likewise, there are scores of significant sites of enslavement that are not identified as such. The massive UA campus, still centered on its founding 1828 quadrangle, does not have any traditional Confederate statuary. In June of 2020, UA did quietly remove “The Rock,” a massive boulder with plaques dedicated to students who served the Confederacy, in addition to two additional dedicatory plaques, all of which were sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. At that time, they also began the process of renaming some buildings that were dedicated to enslavers (Manly Hall), segregationists (Ferguson Center), and racists (Morgan Hall). Students in my class came to believe that these problematic white histories should, at minimum, be acknowledged.

While students uncovered intriguing and wide-ranging information, one particularly haunting and elaborate memorial that remains publicly visible on campus is a Tiffany stained-glass window that represents a Confederate “knight.” The enormous, decorative window, commissioned by the Alabama Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and installed in the campus library in 1925, was meant to memorialize the student cadets who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Although it was moved to a less-trafficked location in the reception area of the Hoole Special Collections Library in 1993, it is still easily accessible and lacks contextual signage. Students thought critically about the way that the work clearly represents the ideals of the Lost Cause and grappled with the idea of whether or not this work should be on public display. The student who researched the work for the database believed the work to be inappropriately discussed on the University library’s website where it is described as “grac[ing] the walls of Special Collections.”

In small ways, there is a history on our campus of students and faculty calling for the types of acknowledgements that my students sought. In 1971 Black students held a sit-in at the President’s Mansion demanding a Black Studies program and improved working conditions for Black employees, among other things. In 2003, the faculty senate officially apologized for the role their own predecessors played in the history of slavery at Alabama, thereby paving the way for more similar actions at an institutional level. However, further actions stalled. Since 2019 however, a task force for the study of slavery, race, and Civil Rights at UA has been convening, and on January 23, 2024, the group officially unveiled a website about the lives of the people formerly enslaved at UA titled, “The History of Enslaved People at UA.” The task force’s endeavors have been funded by the University President’s office. Progress at UA is slow, but finally, incremental. Identifying memorials to slavery’s legacies on campus is another important step. 

Because the types of information the students sought goes against the traditional narrative, the research they undertook was challenging because it has been hidden away. Many of them were simultaneously horrified by what they learned but gratified to have learned it. While their new awareness did not decrease the pride they have as students of the Capstone, it did help them realize how the events they learn about in history classes applied directly to the landscape in which they live and learn. Ultimately they found that a bit of careful consideration of place combined with research into the background of it revealed so much about the legacies of slavery that persist at UA. 

Rachel Stephens is an associate professor of art history at the University of Alabama. Her most-recent book, Hidden in Plain Sight: Concealing Enslavement in American Visual Culture, was published in 2023 by the University of Arkansas Press. Her American Architecture class participated in the LSL project in the fall of 2023.

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