Slavery and WashU: A conversation

Arts & Sciences junior Nkemjika Emenike talks with Geoff K. Ward about the ways that Washington University and the broader St. Louis region are implicated in the history of slavery.

In 2021, Washington University joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium to reckon with the university's historical relationship with slavery. Geoff K. Ward, professor of African and African-American studies, is the director of the WashU & Slavery Project. Nkemjika Emenike, an Arts & Sciences junior majoring in history, recently served as a teaching assistant for a course affiliated with the project. In December, Emenike was featured on St. Louis Public Radio for research that she and four co-authors completed on William Greenleaf Eliot’s anti-abolitionist views. Their findings reshape our understanding of a prominent figure in the history of St. Louis and Washington University.

Ward and Emenike recently sat down to discuss their work, and what follows is a condensed version of their conversation.

Nkemjika Emenike and Geoff K. Ward

Emenike: Thank you for talking with me about this project. A lot of your work is about the legacy of racial violence. What has been the impact of the WashU & Slavery Project on the cultural and historical memory of racial violence and enslavement in St. Louis? 

Ward: As an historical sociologist, I’m really interested in how societies metabolize the past. Through the WashU & Slavery Project, I’m hoping to understand how our historic entanglement with enslavement shapes things like the culture of institution over time, the development of different disciplinary fields, the relationship between the campus and the community, and aspects of student life.

By joining the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, we have an opportunity to engage much more of the campus community in these kinds of considerations than is typically the case. The students who engage these topics do so through just a small number of courses in a handful of disciplines. The vast majority of students in the sciences, medicine, and law have no encounter with these questions. The project can help change that and, in turn, expand our capacity to help address legacies in these many contexts.

Emenike: What implications does this research have for our university’s relationship to Black St. Louisans and racial disparities and segregation that happens in St. Louis?

Ward: The history and legacy of racial violence — not just direct violence, but also structural and cultural violence — is so deeply rooted in this city. I don’t see the WashU & Slavery project uprooting that in some immediate dramatic way. I hope it will make a contribution in a few ways. One is by essentially using our commitment and the visibility and prestige of WashU to pull more of the institutions around us into this vital conversation about how the history of enslavement shapes our community to this day. Another way the project can contribute to the community is by partnering with a number of other reparative commemoration projects in the area that are working to deepen our understanding and address these legacies in our community.

I would love to hear your thoughts on what impacts our university efforts can have on the St. Louis community.

“One of the most important things we can do is learn as much as we can, as soon as possible, about the people who were enslaved and their communities. It is very difficult to recover the memory of African American communities in this period.”

Emenike: We take up a lot of space in the city. We have a stake in a lot of these conversations, whether it be about the city or higher education. I think that utilizing that spatial and academic capital to make this education happen beyond the ivory tower and in the community as well is really important. We might just be discovering this history at WashU, but there are communities out there who have known this history for years. Sometimes you can get sucked into theorizing about all these things and writing essays about problems that people continue to experience in their daily lives. People in the St. Louis community might be able to communicate these problems better than we could ever theorize about. They should always be the center of these conversations.

Ward: I’m always thinking about the fact that our students will, for the most part, not stay in St. Louis after their time at WashU. I want the project to help prepare our students to have the courage to engage in these difficult conversations that the mainstream culture is so disinclined to deal with. Most of our students will pursue non-academic careers, and their voices will be needed in other institutions and communities that are going to grapple with the same questions.

We should prepare our students to provide support and leadership in this space. How do you think we could most effectively engage more students in the project?

Emenike: It’s hard for me to judge. I’m obviously very passionate about this work! One way students get involved in history is when they see it as their own history, as something that shapes the university that they live and study in. I think there needs to be a lot of work within academic circles and smaller courses. I would like for my art school and engineering friends to know more about this issue. I wonder how much more involvement there would be from first-year students who are figuring out what they are going to do with their time here.

Ward: One of the challenges we have, not just in this project but as a society, is to disabuse people of this idea that history is a fascinating topic from the past that is interesting to think about but not all that relevant to who we are today. We have to both acknowledge the historical trauma and also integrate it. We have this relationship to the past whether we want it or not. We’re implicated in it. How we relate to it will determine the extent to which we are repairing the harms, and building a healthier society, or allowing the harms to fester.

“The arch is an entryway to the city, and it would be really impactful to have a marker saying, ‘This is also what you're walking into.’”

Emenike: What areas of research do you hope will get more attention through the WashU & Slavery project?

Ward: I’m hoping WashU will become more involved in the Slave Voyages project, which focuses on the transatlantic slave trade, by documenting the Mississippi and Missouri River slave trade. The manifests of these voyages often required that people be named, both the enslaved and the traffickers. I’d also like us to become involved with the Freedom on the Move collaboration, where a number of universities are gathering wanted ads where slavers are seeking to recover people who freed themselves by escape. This repository does not yet include Missouri newspapers. These efforts could help us learn more about the lives of people who were enslaved.

One of the most important things we can do is learn as much as we can, as soon as possible, about the people who were enslaved and their communities. It is very difficult to recover the memory of African American communities in this period.

I also think that the St. Louis community would benefit from a public memorial to slavery, particularly a memorial to Bernard Lynch's slave pens. One of his slave pens was designated particularly to the holding and selling of enslaved children. Places like the University of Virginia's Memorial to Enslaved Laborers and the Equal Justice Initiative's (EJI) National Memorial for Peace and Justice create arenas where we can gather to reflect and acknowledge this history and the ways that it continues to impact us.

Emenike: One of the first-year students in the Ampersand class that I am a teaching assistant for is writing about Bernard Lynch. She was intrigued by the fact that he owned one of the largest slave pens in St. Louis and yet we know practically nothing about his life after the Civil War. I've also been to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, and I think it's really impactful. You have these, like, big pillars, and there are just names after names after names of victims of racial violence. They're all just kind of hanging there. Then you keep going and you realize that there are duplicates of the pillars they are waiting to send to the communities where these lynchings occurred. It would be interesting to see a memorial like that in St. Louis, particularly if it is placed very close to the arch or the old courthouse, places that are very much land markers for St. Louis.

Ward: I agree. Several of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni are working with EJI through the St. Louis Community Remembrance Project to commemorate lynchings in our community and bring the EJI column to St. Louis. One of those lynchings happened in the vicinity of the courthouse and what later became the arch grounds. Maybe the column should be placed there.

Emenike: Yes. The arch is an entryway to the city, and it would be really impactful to have a marker saying, "This is also what you're walking into."