“Slavery and the Archive” Course at Emory Encourages Deeper Dives Into Sources

At Emory University, Atlanta, students in Assistant Professor Maria Montalvo’s U.S. History Seminar class “Slavery and the Archive” learn how to excavate historical records: making connections between disparate sources and questioning not only what they find, but what they don’t.

exterior of Woodruff Library
Woodruff Library
Photo by Brett Weinstein via Wikimedia Commons

Colleges and universities across the country have been examining histories of racism and slaveholding; sometimes the connections are obvious, but more often they require a deeper dive. At Emory University, Atlanta, students in Assistant Professor Maria Montalvo’s U.S. History Seminar class “Slavery and the Archive” learn how to excavate historical sources: making connections between disparate sources and questioning not only what they find, but what they don’t. With help from Librarian for African American Studies and U.S. History Erica Bruchko, Montalvo has inspired her students to do high-level historical excavation work—all online, owing to the campus shutdown during COVID-19.

Montalvo, a historian of slavery, capitalism, and 19th-century law, first envisioned the class when she took a pedagogy class in graduate school. A problem that historians consistently encounter when studying enslaved people, she said, is that much of the time they’re working with sources preserved by enslavers.

“The central question of the class is one that I think scholars of slavery confront constantly,” Montalvo told LJ. “How do you write about these people when the information and the documents you’re working from were usually not created by them? It’s a question that not only I deal with, but I like my students to deal with. I don’t think you get to be a historian of slavery or enslaved people without grappling with the nature of your sources.”



Bruchko, who has been at Emory since 2010, is one of about 20 subject specialists who support the various departments, including helping build collections, responding to faculty research and teaching needs, and providing research consultations for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. She met Montalvo in 2019, during the latter’s first semester, and sat down over coffee to discuss Montalvo’s idea for the class. Emory honors students are required to take two upper division history seminars with heavy research and writing components, and instructors are encouraged to develop courses that fit the bill.

Montalvo assembled a deep syllabus of readings, from historical accounts of enslaved people and their journeys to contemporary examinations of historiography and biography. The class met in person for the first half of the 2020 spring semester, but then the pandemic closed the Emory campus. At first the change was a disappointment for Montalvo, who was hoping that students would be able to plumb the African American history collections in Emory’s Woodruff Library and Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library. Students wrote their research topic prospectuses before leaving for spring break, anticipating having access to those resources—and then they didn’t come back.

In light of the lack of access to materials, Montalvo decided to broaden the requirements for the research papers. She gave students the choice of continuing with the historical subjects they had originally chosen or writing a more methodological piece arguing about a specific source or set of sources, and how historians should interrogate them; some stayed with their original topics, others changed course.

This year the course was held entirely online, and Montalvo kept those options for the final paper, noting, “It gave them space to be really creative in ways that I didn’t anticipate.” Students have covered topics from the 1811 slave revolt north of New Orleans to extracting a sensory history from 18th-century documents describing an enslaved woman in Jamaica. A student last year, who chose to investigate historian Stephanie Camp’s methods in researching and writing her 2004 Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Univ. of North Carolina Press), “wrote a paper that wouldn’t have been out of place in a graduate level class,” said Montalvo. Her students “impressed me with how much they were able to do, even in the most miserable circumstances,” she said, adding that COVID constraints may have held a silver lining. “I think one of the things that the pandemic did for the class was open it up a little bit for me and for my students. It’s given them space to be a lot more creative with how they think and how they want to explore.”

Students were able to use Emory’s online collections, as well as open access materials and proprietary databases, and Bruchko was available to help them talk over their topics. “Students reported on their research interests,” she said. “Instead of doing the more traditional database demo, in this case we really thought about what is the landscape of sources, and how, given the topic, do we navigate that often challenging landscape when we’re dealing with marginalized populations, enslaved peoples, who often didn’t leave a written record?”

Bruchko put together a set of libguides specific to the class with a list of resources that included physical archives held at Emory—which students, such as one who is writing on the home built for an enslaved woman owned by Emory’s board chair in 1844, will be able to access next fall when the campus reopens—as well as vendor resources such as Adam Matthew’s Slavery, Abolition, and Social Justice; ProQuest’s History Vault, which includes records of Southern antebellum plantations; and Gale’s Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive.

Historic newspaper collections, such as those available through the Library of Congress (LC) and National Endowment for the Humanities’ Chronicling America site, help students trace ideas over time. They also have taken advantage of the availability of first-person slave narratives through the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s North American Slave Narratives project and LC’s Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938. Despite the richness of resources available to the students online, noted Bruchko, “navigating them, thinking about how to read these sources, is a challenge—and one of the purposes of the class.”

Bruchko is a member of the African American Subject Funnel Project, which works with LC to propose new subject headings. Those efforts are part of work being done by Emory libraries’ Addressing Systemic Racism - Metadata Task Force, currently in the process of preparing recommendations to better represent marginalized populations within the library systems—both addressing them retrospectively and looking ahead. Classes such as “Slavery in the Archive” allow her to use her role as a librarian “to bring in critical information literacy skills beyond just finding something, but also interrogating the systems themselves and trying to figure out how to rectify these things, and change language in our catalogs or update our finding aids so that there’s more appropriate language.”

Students have approached the class, and their limited access to materials, with enthusiasm and open minds, Montalvo told LJ. “Getting to think things through with them this way has made me a better historian.” And while she doesn’t expect them all to enter the field, “I hope that by the time they’re done they are more comfortable asking questions about the information that they’re confronted with all the time, because everything is produced. And once they see that, I hope that they’re more critical about the world around them and their place in it.” Montalvo looks forward to holding classes in person again, and having Bruchko sit in.

“Courses like this really force students to question our systems themselves, how enslaved people were described over the course of the 20th century, and why is it difficult to find their voices,” said Bruchko, “because of the 19th century but also because of how library systems had bias embedded within them and privileged the voices of some and not others.”

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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