Grant to support Brown-led global oral history project on slavery’s legacy

With support from a $1.25 million grant from the Abrams Foundation, scholars at Brown are working with partners to collect personal stories that reveal how slavery and colonialism shaped societies across the globe.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With a $1.25 million grant from the Abrams Foundation, scholars at Brown University will work with partners across the globe to collect important untold stories about the history of racial slavery — revealing how that history still shapes society today.

With support from the grant, researchers at Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice will collaborate with an international network of scholars in Senegal, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Belgium, Brazil and beyond to host public conversations, capture video narratives and record oral histories that seek to answer two important questions: How did slavery and colonialism shape these places, and how did they shape the world as a whole?

The historical archival project — called “Unfinished Conversations” — will play a key role in an exhibition tentatively titled “In Slavery’s Wake,” which will open in December 2024 at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and will later travel to major museums in Europe, Africa and South America. It will also reshape the way current and future researchers understand the stunning scope of the transatlantic slave trade and the global legacy of racial slavery and colonialism, said Anthony Bogues, director of the CSSJ.

Bogues explained that scholars are at the forefront of contemporary discourse on colonialism, and their research draws mostly on conventional historical sources such as written documents from European colonial powers. “Unfinished Conversations,” on the other hand, seeks to prioritize the voices of everyday people who have fewer opportunities and resources than others as a direct result of their ancestors’ enslavement.

“This kind of oral history project has never been done before,” Bogues said. “Many will, for the first time, hear the voices and memories of people whose personal experiences are still inextricably tied to racial slavery, the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. These moving and revealing conversations will demonstrate why we are not finished reckoning with the past.” 

The $1.25 million grant comes from the Boston-based Abrams Foundation, founded by Brown alumna Amy Abrams and her husband, David. Abrams, who concentrated in history at Brown, said she was inspired to support “Unfinished Conversations” because of its unusual scope and reach — with scholarly partners working together across four continents.

“I see the project as ambitious, groundbreaking, and innovative,” Abrams said. “In documenting and giving voice to the stories, memories and narratives of the descendants of slaves, ‘Unfinished Conversations’ provides expanded resources for students and scholars. Working with this rich source material, researchers can deepen our understanding of slavery and its impact in the making of our modern world. “

“ Many will, for the first time, hear the voices and memories of people whose personal experiences are still inextricably tied to racial slavery, the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. ”

Anthony Bogues Director, Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice

Reshaping how stories are collected and curated

Bogues said the project originated in 2020 and 2021, when partner scholars led by Ibrahima Thiaw at the Cultural Engineering and Anthropology Research Unit of Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, captured more than 20 hours of video interview footage with 27 people who live between Saint-Louis and the Senegal River Valley, once a central node in the transatlantic slave trade. At the end of the 19th century, French colonial authorities established villages de liberté, or “freedom villages,” for formerly enslaved Africans, and they relied on the villages’ inhabitants for cheap or even unpaid labor — effectively keeping Africans in positions of subordination even after they were technically freed from slavery. After developing relationships and cultivating trust with current residents of those former “freedom villages,” Senegalese scholars traveled there from Dakar and recorded their stories about ancestral migration to the area, the region’s evolving spiritual and cultural practices, and how French colonization changed the physical landscape.

Throughout the rest of 2022, scholars at CSSJ and at partner institutions will conduct interviews in several other countries where the legacies of racial slavery still reverberate. They will visit the wine region near Cape Town, South Africa, where vineyards once paid their workers in wine instead of currency, leading to systemic alcohol-related health issues that persist today. In the U.K. port city of Liverpool, they will speak to descendants of West Africans who arrived there in the late 18th century, when the bustling area was Britain’s main slave-trading port. Researchers based in Rio de Janeiro will speak to Black residents of Brazil, the landing place for over half of all Africans who crossed the Atlantic in the prime years of the slave trade; two centuries later, millions of Afro-Brazilians live in poverty and comprise two thirds of the country’s incarcerated population.

Scholars who are affiliated with the CSSJ will also convene conversations in New England, where Indigenous and Native peoples and members of African American organizations will share some of their ancestors’ forgotten stories.

“The legacies of slavery are not just structural — they are also personal,” Bogues said. “Hearing an individual’s story about living in precarity or navigating the carceral state can humanize systemic inequality better than a statistic can. Together with our international partners, we hope to broaden everyone’s understanding of the histories and the aftermaths of racial slavery and colonialism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Once interviews are complete, the one-of-a-kind collection will be digitized and housed at Brown’s John Hay Library, where it will be accessible to researchers, students and members of the public everywhere. Importantly, each partner institution will also retain an archive of the conversations conducted in their respective locales — making them easily accessible to nearby scholars and members of the public who don’t have internet access or cannot travel to Brown. The interviews will also remain the intellectual property of the various communities, and interviewees will reserve the right to remove their interviews from the archive at any time. 

Amanda Strauss, associate University librarian for special collections, said she believes the collection of global conversations will not only inform high-impact scholarship on the repercussions of racial slavery, but will also reshape the way that stories are collected and curated.

“This isn’t just an oral history project — it’s also a different kind of curatorial practice,” Strauss said. “These oral histories highlight the knowledge and expertise of individuals and reflect the way their communities keep and transmit knowledge. Facilitators are taking time to establish close relationships with interviewees, establishing a mutually beneficial relationship grounded in trust. This project is a glimpse at the future of how collection-building and scholarship can intersect in a non-extractive, equitable, thoughtful and community-focused way.”