HomepageNewsExamining Incarceration as a Legacy of American Slavery

Examining Incarceration as a Legacy of American Slavery

Six members from the faculty, staff, and community embarked on an initiative to explore the long-lasting impact of slavery in the region as part of a Council of Independent Colleges public history institute.

“Legacies of American Slavery: Reckoning with the Past” is an initiative of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale University in collaboration with the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC). Supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, with supplemental funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the multi-year project provides a variety of opportunities for faculty members, staff, and students of CIC member institutions, and community-based partners to participate in research, teaching and learning, and public discussions about the legacies of American slavery.

Earlier this year, President Robyn Hannigan brought together a team of six to explore possible project directions in advance of a weeklong summer institute held at Yale. Associate Professor of English, African American and Africana Studies, and American Studies Patricia Lott, Librarian of the College and Co-director of the Teaching and Learning Institute Diane Skorina, Collegeville Mayor and Associate Pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church Aidsand “Ace” Wright-Riggins H’19, Vice President for Inclusion and Community Engagement Heather Lobban-Viravong (who is also the interim vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college), Associate Professor of History and African American and Africana Studies Edward Onaci, and Executive Director of the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art Lauren McArdel worked together to determine which legacy of American slavery they wanted to examine.,

They chose to focus on the prison industrial complex and the disproportionate incarceration of Black people.

“We decided that Bethlehem Baptist Church (where Wright-Riggins is associate pastor) would be a good partner,” said Lott. “We know that Ursinus College and Bethlehem Baptist Church are not very far from SCI (State Correctional Institute) Phoenix … So we want to investigate whether or how Ursinus and Bethlehem Baptist Church’s geographical proximity to, historical relationship with, and institutional memory of the prison play out in the archival and the oral record, because we hope to do oral history interviews with the congregants.”

Congregants at Bethlehem Baptist Church were selected in part due to a unique practice Wright-Riggins experienced. “In many churches, you pray for people who have been ill or are in nursing homes, but my church has been doing something for the last several years that I have not seen in many churches: praying for—and naming by name—people who have been incarcerated. I think that is really important because oftentimes these people become invisible or forgotten or, out of a sense of shame, we don’t mention them, but the fact of the matter is our incarceration system … became an afterlife of slavery.”

Lott intends to use her 200-level “American Studies” course next semester as a training ground of sorts for students to teach them how to conduct the oral-history interviews. Onaci, whose first book is an oral history of the New Afrikan Independence Movement, will also be participating with the oral history component.

This fall, Lott will engage directly with congregants as a featured speaker at some of the church’s fireside chats, which are intellectual events regarding historical and contemporary issues. Nearly finished with a book that looks at the problems of racial slavery, incomplete emancipation, and unfinished abolition in the U.S. north, she was able to call upon her historical research for this project as well.

“I already knew that Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition act in 1780 that, like most gradual acts, didn’t free a single slave. Instead, it legislated that enslaved women’s children could become free at the age of 28. Beginning in 1790, just 10 years after this gradual clause, Pennsylvania opened the nation’s first penitentiary, Walnut Street Prison,” said Lott. “Very quickly, it began to disproportionately criminalize and punish Black people.” After Walnut Street Prison closed, Eastern State Penitentiary opened. When it closed, SCI Graterford opened. “When they closed SCI Graterford, right on the property adjacent to it they opened SCI Phoenix, so that’s the genealogy of the prison,” she said.

The goal of the institute was to bring together three-member teams from seven small liberal arts colleges to share and fine-tune their projects. “It really tapped us into a wealth of resources and persons who could shed some light on our work in some important ways,” said Lott, who attended the institute with Skorina and Wright-Riggins.

The week included talks from authors and historians, such as David Blight, director of the Gilder Lehrman Center; a tour of New Haven that focused on Black history; and a visit to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where they viewed historical letters poetry, journal entries, newspapers, and art work.

“We saw prison letters and diary entries from Ericka Huggins, who was involved with the Black Panther Party,” said Lott. “We got a chance to see a lot of rich material, some of which pertained to Pennsylvania explicitly. We saw the July 4, 1776, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. This is the day that the Declaration is being adopted and on the very back of the newspaper, there’s an advertisement for a little 4-year-old boy who was being sold in Philadelphia.”

In thinking about the relationship between slavery and freedom in Pennsylvania, and the work that lies ahead in gathering oral histories, the team has spent a lot of time talking about “what it means to scratch up these very hurtful, painful stories for people and how to engage in that in a humane and ethical way.”

Overall, Skorina feels the experience expanded the group’s view of what public history can do and gave them practical direction in terms of their project. By talking to other groups, listening to the speakers, and spending meaningful time with historical artifacts, they gained new insight. At the end of the week, they considered, “How did our project change? What might we need to do differently based on all we have learned?” she said. “It gave you this whole new perspective of how to look at a place.”

“This country is having a cultural moment of acknowledging the much greater impact that the whole history of enslavement has everywhere, and I think it’s important that Ursinus is joining that larger conversation—both in higher education and nationally, but doing it in a very local way.”

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