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The 1856 Project releases inaugural research report

Librarians and archivists contributed to report documenting UMD’s ties to enslaved families and Underground Railroad

Speakers at The 1856 Project Research Update

The 1856 Project held its First Annual Research Update event at McKeldin Library on February 7 to discuss the project’s first research report, Reconstructing the Truth. Researchers shared findings based on historical information from UMD Libraries’ special collections and archives,  uncovered by members of The 1856 Project, Summer Research Initiative participants, Fall 2023 semester undergraduate student interns, and community historians. The project is named for the year in which the University of Maryland, then known as the Maryland Agricultural College (MAC), was founded.

The new report features background on MAC founder Charles Benedict Calvert, an enslaver who donated land to create the college; an examination of how land, roads and taverns in the area around MAC were likely used by slaves seeking freedom; and how early investors and trustees of MAC gained wealth through slavery. It highlights the stories of local African American families, including the Dorys and the Greenleafs—who were enslaved on what is now university land—and introduces new archaeological studies.

The 1856 Project investigates the University of Maryland’s connection to the regional context of slavery. It is the local chapter of Universities Studying Slavery (USS), a multi-institutional and international consortium of colleges and universities encouraging their institutions to think about their connections to slavery and the slave trade while addressing historical and contemporary issues surrounding race and inequality in higher education.

“The 1856 Project is a testament to the impact this kind of archival work can have. This new research report is an important first step in confronting and disrupting the narrative of our shared history. It challenges us to see through the privileged half-truths we’ve long held as a university and to create a more inclusive and truthful documented history,” said Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, UMD Libraries’ Associate Director of Engagement, Inclusion and Reparative Archiving.

Hughes-Watkins co-chairs The 1856 Project along with Traci Dula, Associate Director of the Honors College. Also on the research report team from UMD Libraries were Doug McElrath, Director of Special Collections and University Archives; Drew Barker, Performing Arts Librarian; and Libraries’ graduate assistants Alan Wierdak and Manuel Mendez.

"There is nothing more powerful than gaining the ability, the humility, the audacity, the honesty, to actually try to see oneself and others, to understand and witness one’s own condition and history, to reflect upon our collective stories and experiences in a truer light, and to use that wisdom to struggle toward a better, more just world,” said Adriene Lim, Dean of UMD Libraries, in her remarks at the First Annual Research Report Update event.

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