Baylor Conversation Series begins discussions about American slavery

The Baylor Conversation Series: Perspectives on our History, Slavery in America, opened the first of three webinars leading to the release of the Commission on Historic Campus Representations’ report on Tuesday evening. Screenshot from event

By Emily Cousins | Staff Writer

The Baylor Conversation Series: Perspectives on our History, Slavery in America, opened the first of three webinars leading to the release of the Commission on Historic Campus Representations’ report on Tuesday evening.

The series started with slavery in America, and next week will specifically dig into slavery in Texas and among Texas Baptists. The final webinar will be the historical findings of the Commission and their recommendations.

The Ralph and Bessie Mae Lynn Chair of History Dr. Ronald Johnson moderated the event, with panelists associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University Dr. Kate Carté, professor of history at University of Houston Dr. Matthew J. Clavin, and Dr. James Sidbury, The Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Rice University.

President Linda Livingstone opened the event with 336 attendees and said the conversation series will take the Baylor Family through a similar journey of history that the Commission discussed.

“These will be conversations that address difficult subjects,” Livingstone said. “Subjects that are painful and about which there are disagreements. However, we are committing ourselves to practicing civil discourse and open dialogue for the sake of reaching a place of mutual understanding and healing.”

Johnson said having these discussions about slavery before releasing the report will give the Baylor family an opportunity to have all the information the Commission had when they made their decisions.

“I think these discussions are very good things for our university, but as we’ve seen in other areas, just simply dropping the report would not really give us time to really contextualize and really give thought to what it is we are seeing and reading,” Johnson said. “The conversations we’re having will hopefully minimize quick reactions without thinking through ideas around report. We’re really hoping to set up an atmosphere in which we can have these very important discussions, but in a healthy, respectful and civil manner.”

Johnson opened the floor to the panelists to discuss the origins of slavery in America. Carté said exploitation of labor began with colonization and creating levels of human worth based on exterior differences.

“Because the slave system is so central to everything that happens in the 250 years before the founding of the nation, slavery is embedded in our economy and our political structures, in the way we think about religion and the way religion interacts with our lives and our legal codes, just in everything,” Carté said.

Sidbury said the way slavery looked in the northern states versus the southern states was very different. Slavery in the South had focus on crops, while slaves in the North more often worked in urban areas and had to do domestic labor.

“But domestic labor was incredibly difficult, heavy physical labor in the early modern world,” Sidbury said. “So they’re working, doing washing, in which laundry was a terrifically difficult and physically difficult job, cooking over in kitchens that had open fires in the winter and the summer, taking care of different kinds of small animals …, often responsible for some for childcare, also responsible for cleaning up.”

Clavin said when the Atlantic Slave Trade was abolished, some founding fathers were confident slavery would die off, but the invention of the cotton gin led to securing slavery’s future.

“Slavery becomes, by the early 19th century, this global albatross that is just almost impossible to eliminate but with horrific war in the mid 19th century,” Clavin said.

Carté said the majority of slaveholders were evangelical Christians in the South. She said southern Christians avoided the conversation by holding a literal interpretation of the Bible.

“The issue is that the slaveholders are talking about when it comes to Christianity, and the issues that are to be debated in the churches are rarely things like, ‘Is it wrong to cut off the fingers of a slave who stole or is it wrong to rape us? Is it more wrong to rape a black woman than a white woman?’” Carté said. “They don’t debate those questions that so much trouble people today. What they’re going to be debating are things like, ‘Is it right to use an external sensibility to read Scripture,’ right, and then they can deflect.”

Sidbury said people need to understand the Civil War was not the true end of slavery and racism.

“It’s really hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that there are still people who are the grandchildren of enslaved people, that slavery is not very far in our past,” Sidbury said. “One very important thing is people need to understand is that 300 years of an institution’s effect on our culture, followed by 100 years of no effort to do anything to overcome it, that just leaves such deep effects on the way we perceive the world, the way we understand possibilities in the world and the structural issues are realities that shape different people’s possibilities … The legacy of slavery is so deep in American culture.”

Clavin said abolitionism was very unpopular. He said there are many plaques celebrating abolitionists, but in the South there are huge monuments celebrating confederate leaders.

“In any society, you don’t normally memorialize a small, radical minority,” Clavin said. “Things have changed in the last 30, 40 years, and now these plaques for underground railroad markers, they’re showing up everywhere, but there’s just not the plethora of concrete that you see across the South dedicated to the Confederate warriors … It means something when there’s far more memorials to white supremacists than to freedom fighters.”

To be a true patriot, being critical of the United States is required, Clavin said.

“It’s okay to say that America is imperfect, and you can say your goal is to build a more perfect union,” Clavin said. “To just blindly walk around saying, ‘We are perfect. No one is like us. We are so exceptional,’ without asking some tough questions, that’s very problematic. I think you have to address the truth. These are facts: slavery existed. It’s an ugly part of the historical record, not just for our nation, but for many others. It’s still okay to think America is flawed, and potentially an incredibly exceptional place … I often am very distraught about how far we are from reaching our exceptional goals and ideals, but thank goodness we have them.”