History Professors Discuss the Evolution of Racism in America
Two faculty members discuss the broad history of structural racism in the U.S. and how it has shaped experiences at Duke
Ed Balleisen, Professor of History and Public Policy, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies
“Thavolia, I wonder if we could start by your reflecting on three or four really crucial aspects of American history that too many people just don’t know much about.”
Thavolia Glymph, Professor of History and Law
“Over the many decades that I’ve been teaching U.S. history, I am constantly amazed by how much we don’t, as Americans, know about our history, and it seems to me that the most critical things we don’t know have to do with race, This seems very odd, since race is so central to how we live, how we work, who we live with. So part of my mission has been to help center or recenter the conversation and increase what Americans know of our history.
“I keep saying our history because I want to emphasize that the history of African-Americans is American history. It’s U.S. history. And we know very little about, for example, slavery. That seems really crazy, because slavery comes up all the time, whether we’re talking about reparations or the legacies of slavery ... what Americans seem to know about slavery is very limited to images of plantations, people picking cotton. They seem to know very little about what it meant to be enslaved.
“I think it’s really important now that we spend more time talking about how transformative the notion of ending human bondage was, how this idea that human beings should not be commodified, that human beings should not be for sale, how that notion took hold and what role it played in the history of this country.”
Continue the Conversation
“Duke only dates to 1924 when James B. Duke provided a founding gift of $40 million to launch the university, but its precursor, Trinity College, began much earlier in 1838. Its first location was in Randolph County, North Carolina, before it moved to Durham. What was Trinity’s relationship to the institution of slavery in those early years?”
“We are Trinity College in some sense. It’s our predecessor school. We have the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences that recognizes that deep tie to the past. What we have not been keen to recognize in that tie to Trinity is the possibility that we have some relationship to slavery through Trinity.
“Trinity was located in a county where slaveholding was not extensive … but there were slaves, and slaves on the campus of Trinity College. [There were] enslaved people who belonged to faculty members, who belonged to [President] Braxton Craven in later years.
“Students would have come into intimate contact with enslaved people on campus and in the homes where they boarded, where there were typically slaves used to help care for these students. And I think, perhaps more critically, Trinity students would have come into knowledge of slavery through their classes. Braxton Craven, for example, gave many lectures on slavery, and his lectures were the typical lectures of a pro-slavery person and slaveholder, in his case.”