empathy · slavery · University of Alabama

the horrors…the bridges…the stories


Tonight as I watch WGN’s “Underground” television drama, which poignantly addresses the issue of slavery by often featuring women on the run, I have in the back of my mind “Why Nott,” an event  I attended at the University of Alabama only a couple of hours ago.

“Why Nott” was a culminating discussion concerning the history of slavery at the university. I was touched by presentations from my fellow historians Hilary (“the other”) Green and Erik Peterson. While I have taken Green’s well-done “Hallowed Grounds” tours, which invite honest discussions about our enslaved past, I did not know many things I learned tonight including how the racial theories of Josiah Nott, the man for whom the Nott building is named, were more widely circulated in his lifetime than those of Charles Darwin whose theories on the origins of human species were mentioned in my “American Civilization to 1865” class today.

I learned, too, the names of the men the university once owned. Remember, in particular, the ones who worked in the Gorgas House, Dr. Green asked us.

I recall asking students enrolled in the “Antebellum America” course I taught two springs ago to note the three graves beside one entrance to the Biology building. One is the body of an enslaved man. But I didn’t know so much of what I have learned tonight.

Before we parted, we sat with students who also digested the information and pondered what might be done with it. One of the most encouraging moments was hearing some of them say we should at the very least have more dialogue and work to find how much we have in common than not. Another suggestion has long been changing the names of some of our building including Nott.

Hilary Green and I joined by Lane McClelland of UA’s Crossroads, a wonderful program designed to build bridges.

Where it will all lead is anyone’s guess. For now, although in my research I am concerned about our complex shared past, I’ll be thinking of our complex shared present. “Tell the stories, Hilary also told us. “Develop empathy,” she said, too. I’ll keep trying to do both. Roll Tide!

Archival document revealing name of enslaved boy who  worked and lived on our campus.

Meanwhile, I will also keep in mind the haunting images shown on tonight’s episode of “Underground.” I think now of the leeches covering the body of Rosalee, a fair-skinned pregnant woman on the run.

Jurnee Smollet-Bell plays Rosalee in WGN’s “Underground,” one of four shows airing Wednesdays this spring that unveil the experiences of people of African descent.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell is doing an amazing job with this role. I think the leeches that covered her body as she crawled out of a lake were a metaphor for the horrors eating away at her, but also something medicinal. Indeed, before the episode ended she was bitten by a snake. For medicine, she reached for a leech. And she ate it.

Complexities are always before our eye. What we do with them is up to us.

Postscript: I was struck by a comment just received from a student in my Am Civ class. See a web page set up to address tonight’s talk and an earlier one given this semester here.

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