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Mellon Foundation awards Emory College prestigious Sawyer Seminar grant for ‘Visions of Slavery’

Historian Walter C. Rucker (left) and anthropologist Bayo Holsey of Emory College will co-lead a yearlong examination of the histories of slavery in the Black Atlantic, as well as the struggles against it. The work is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Emory College of Arts and Sciences has been awarded a $225,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to lead a yearlong examination of the histories of slavery in the Black Atlantic, as well as the struggles against it, in order to better understand current social justice efforts.

Co-organized by Emory College professors Bayo Holsey and Walter C. Rucker, an anthropologist and historian, respectively, “Visions of Slavery” will explore how slavery in the Black Atlantic has been archived, memorialized and interpreted both historically and more recently.

As part of the Mellon’s 2022-2023 Sawyer Seminar series, the symposium will unite Emory faculty across the humanities and social sciences with scholars from other metro Atlanta universities.

“The support of the Mellon Foundation is a vote of confidence in our faculty as scholarly leaders advancing questions that are critical to the future of the humanities and our society,” says Michael A. Elliott, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences. “Seminars like this one are invaluable opportunities for scholars to collaborate and imagine ambitious directions for future research.” 

The working group planning the seminars, which also includes faculty from Emory College’s departments of English and religion, is planning a kickoff event for late spring that will feature a discussion of the links and tropes between historical slavery and forced labor, Rucker says.

“Technically, what we call modern-day slavery is a vast array of forms of forced labor, so there is a conversation to be had about the larger framework of what constitutes unfreedom,” he says. “We can have useful dialogue about these topics with a focus on bringing those conversations to a broader public.”

An additional public talk will be held next fall, with a closing symposium for spring 2023. The grant includes funding for a Sawyer Seminar postdoctoral fellow to help coordinate events and conduct research to support the broader theme.

Students from Emory’s Laney Graduate School also will work on the seminar next semester. In the coming year, Emory College and Oxford College students may have the opportunity for independent research or be able to enroll in various courses based on the seminar.

Holsey, for instance, plans to interrogate how the history of slavery complicated the identities of people living in western Africa as well as the collective memory in those areas.

In the long term, that sort of research may become the groundwork for a center for the study of slavery at Emory. Such a facility would provide undergraduates with training and research opportunities and elevate the public history of slavery and unfreedom across Georgia and the American South.

“From the rich history of African Americans and activism in Atlanta and all of the Black colleges, museums and historical sites here, to the archival and curated resources on campus, Emory is the perfect location for these kinds of discussions,” Holsey says.