Hundreds of enslaved and free Black laborers helped build Emory & Henry. Students unearthed their buried stories.
Students at Emory & Henry College have spent the past semester uncovering the names of hundreds of people who were enslaved at the college, before and during the Civil War. They produced a short video, meant as a memorial to those whose stories would otherwise have been written into oblivion.
During Emory & Henry College’s first thirty years, the labor of enslaved Black workers was woven into nearly every aspect of the college’s existence.
Until now, much of this history has been buried, or unacknowledged, said student Mills Becouvarakis. “The truth really isn’t being told, and we’re just forgetting about these human beings that played a massive role in society, specifically here at Emory and Henry,” Becouvarakis said.
Becouvarakis is one of 24 students who worked on the video, which is titled “A Remembrance.” It was produced as part of The Watershed Project, an ongoing effort at the college to uncover stories of southwest Virginia.
Professor Tal Stanley spearheaded this project. “This work was not accomplished by historians or archivists or experts. Emory & Henry students, men and women eighteen to twenty-two years old, did this work, and it transformed them,” said Stanley, who is the college's Resident Scholar for the Citizenship of Place.
The work his students did this spring is part of an ongoing research project that began two years ago, as students have dug into archives, documenting names and references to 371 Black laborers who worked at the college from 1936-1865.
Many were slaves, owned by faculty, or rented by the college. Others traveled to the Southwest Virginia campus with students, to work to pay the tuition cost for their enslavers.
In the video, current students, as well as community members, read these names aloud. Some of the readers in the video are descendants of former slaves.
“And now those lives of those people who otherwise would have been forgotten are woven into the lives of all that are on that video,” Stanley said. “That’s holy work. And I am so grateful to have been a part of it.”
Religion and history major Jett McReynolds, who worked on the project, said reckoning with history has an emotional level to it, that it’s more than learning facts.
“Our souls to our connected souls to each other throughout history. Things are connected and things are tied in ways that we really don’t know,” McReynolds said. “I think it’s worthwhile, looking into those stories in an honest way, and a truthful way.”
Sophomore Alandra Williams, who’s Black, says she’s struggled at times to come to peace with the college’s complicated past. But working on this project has helped redeem some of her trust.
“Because finally somebody is taking accountability and willing to bring awareness to things and people that have been buried for years on end,” Williams said.
Stanley said he asked his students to be honest during the process of documenting these names and reflecting on what it meant. “And when it came time to be honest, not a one of them flinched. And I am a better person for it.” He said this class of students has taught him about confronting history, truth telling, and the power of finding connections with people from the past.
“This work, my hunch is, will forever change them, and make them the kind of citizens, the kind of neighbors who will understand things just a little bit more broadly,” Stanley said. “Our calling is to build a better world and that’s what I hope.”
This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.