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Complicating Legacies: Studying Slavery, Equity, and Inclusion on a Southern Quaker Campus

On Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, Crisis and Hope: YU Voices hosted a discussion with Krishauna Hines-Gaither, associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, and Gwen Gosney Erickson, Quaker librarian and college archivist, both from Guilford College in North Carolina, on the college’s work in reassessing the entanglement of Guilford’s Quaker history with slavery’s enduring legacies.

The event was part of Blacks and Jews in America: History and Themes of a Complex Brotherhood, a course being taught this semester by Dr. Jess Olson, associate professor of Jewish history at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the two professionals wove a fascinating narrative of how Guilford is managing the process as an institution and a community rooted in the Quaker faith to honor the faith’s abolitionist past while acknowledging how that same Quaker faith also managed to include slave owners and those who could not abide the thought of having freed slaves join the Society of Friends. As Hines-Gaither told it, “To honor the practice of the values of equality alongside instances when institutional practice defeated equality: this is the project of remembering and telling the truth facing every community.”

One of the ways the college is foregrounding this work is through a process of naming parts of the campus for people who had been crucial to the college’s success but who were made invisible because of their skin color and background. Hines-Gaither told the story Lavina Curry, a free Black woman who was a washerwoman in the 1830s at what was then called the New Garden Boarding School who helped Negroes in North Carolina escape to Indiana, a free state. The penalty at that time for that “crime” was 39 lashes across the bare back, but here was a free woman risking punishment for her actions—and not just once but 15 times. There will be a naming ceremony for her at the college to recognize her work.

“There are a lot of risks for institutions doing this work,” said Hines-Gaither, “because people take a lot of ownership of history, of stories, even if they’re not true. You have to know who you are, who are your people. You have to ask yourself if you are ready for what may unfold because what you unveil may be distinct from what you think is there.”

Erickson agreed, noting that “we’re always wondering which step will prove the troubling step, which gets even trickier as you move away from distant history into the realm of living memory, when things get more complicated and sticky.”

But as Hines-Gaither observed, what they can do to “break the cycle of complicity” with a complicated history is to “introduce disruptions, such as our naming project, which brings in voices that normally would never be at the table.” Erickson seconded that, saying that the goal is “how to be inclusive while retaining your values.”