Joe, Watson, Moses, Sally, Samuel.
The names may be commonplace, but they hold a hidden history that includes something far from ordinary — the legacy of slavery.
If you listen hard enough you may even hear in your thoughts and emotions the voices of the voiceless, the enslaved whose labors were foundational to the growth of America.
For hundreds of years, the voices of slavery were a large part of life throughout the South, and Southwest Virginia was no exception.
A growing movement on college campuses today is prompting college leaders and students to come to terms with the reality that their institutions were built by the labors of the enslaved.
Emory & Henry College in Washington County is just one of many institutions with historic ties to slavery and human bondage. During the college’s first 30 years, the labor of enslaved Black workers was intertwined around every facet of life at the college, from growing and cooking food to raising crops and livestock.
As a way to honor those stories, a small group of students at the liberal arts college has set out to rediscover that history and to make sure these stories are told and not forgotten.
The work of the students is part of an ongoing research project that started two years ago. Tal Stanley, a professor at the college and a regional historian, is spearheading the project. Digging into the college’s original records and account books, students have uncovered the names of 371 enslaved and free persons of color who worked during the founding of the college from 1836 to 1865.
This spring, students enrolled in a civic innovation course worked through the Appalachian Center for Civic Life on campus to document those names.
The work of the students has resulted in the creation of a video titled “A Remembrance,” an initial memorial to those enslaved and free persons of color who labored at Emory & Henry College during this time.
The first public screening of “A Remembrance,” will be held at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17, in the Kennedy-Reedy Theater of the McGlothlin Center for the Arts on the Emory & Henry campus. A live streaming of the event will be available at www.ehc.edu.
According to Stanley, the memorial marks the first of its kind ever undertaken at Emory & Henry, a school where 10% of the students are Black.
“The evening will open a season of reflection and discernment focusing on the college’s relationship to slavery and its legacies in Southwest Virginia and the American Republic,” he said.
The event is being described as having significant importance to the history of the college and the local community. “We’ve uncovered a wealth of information,” said Stanley, who is the college’s Resident Scholar for the Citizenship of Place.
The video was produced as part of the Watershed Project, a digital, interactive, publicly accessible online history of Southwest Virginia.
Stanley said the research project has proved to be more than an assignment for the students. “It’s transformed them,” he said.
For Jett McReynolds, a 2023 graduate of Emory & Henry, the project was an eye-opening experience. “Before this project, I was aware that Emory & Henry was constructed through the use of enslaved persons. This project sought to tell an honest and genuine glimpse into Emory & Henry’s past.”
Ryan Vaughan, a third-year student at the college, helped to recover many of the names of the enslaved for the project.
“It means so much to me to be able to share this work with the community. I get emotional every time I watch ‘A Remembrance’ or open a book that has names of the enslaved people who were on the same campus that I am now many years later. It’s a huge responsibility to be doing this work. It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to be a part of this work,” said Vaughan.
“I wouldn’t say that this project changed my views on slavery, but I can say that this project has deepened my understanding of the slave society itself, as well as the institution’s effect within that society.”
People in the community also have expressed their gratitude to the college for making an attempt to recover the history.
Mary Lampkins, a retired teacher in Washington County who received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Emory & Henry, is one of the community members who read names of the enslaved for the video presentation.
“I am very glad that this memorial is being done because I always knew that due to its location here in the south, Emory & Henry most likely had enslaved people laboring there,” Lampkins said.
“It’s time for Emory & Henry to come forward and publicly acknowledge the history of buying and selling human beings. Slavery is an ugly scar across the face of America,” she said. “Some people don’t like to talk about it, but it’s real. I’m glad that the college is admitting its relationship to slavery. It’s giving these people back their identities and acknowledging that they mattered. It’s giving them the dignity that they deserve because they were humans.”
Because her home is only two miles from the college, Lampkins speculates she probably descends from some of the enslaved laborers at the college. “It’s a bit conflicting to me to know that I probably had ancestors who more than likely endured atrocities at this place I love so much.”
Stanley’s work with the Watershed Project began in 2021 when Stanley stepped away from other administrative duties at the college to write an additional history of the college, building on the work of the late George Stevenson in the 1960s.
“We wanted to create a different way to tell the stories of Southwest Virginia so that our history becomes more relevant and accessible to the general public. We seek to tell an honest story that is as dynamic as this place is, and by telling this honest dynamic story, our aim is to help equip a new citizenry for Southwest Virginia,” said Stanley, who coordinates the digital Watershed Project.
“One window for doing that was Emory & Henry College, the oldest educational institution in Southwest Virginia.”
Founded in 1836, the college is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, one of the defining cultural and religious institutions in Southwest Virginia for many generations.
“It seemed the right way of using the college for telling this larger story,” Stanley said.
It didn’t take the professor and his students long to realize the enormous magnitude of the research project. “It defies easy answers and every single one of us is implicated in this history in some way.”
In addition to the work done by students to uncover names, the Watershed Project has also worked to digitize the college’s original record books from as far back as its founding.
After spending most of his life learning the history of the region, Stanley recognizes that the stories of the enslaved have never been told in depth.
“We wanted to offer a more honest story and we started digging,” he said.
A native of Pulaski County, Stanley said his roots run deep in Southwest Virginia, making him a natural fit for the project.
“The opportunity to work with students on this project has been transformational for me,” he said. “It spoke to my calling how to be honest about our history and to stand up and say there are things we may not be proud of but we have to acknowledge them and be honest about them. That’s the only way we’re going to build a better world.”
Stanley believes the project will have important outcomes. “As a community in conversation with each other around a shared table, I’m confident we will come up with an honest and gracious way to carry the memory of these people,” he said.
“We’re coming to understand how important it is to be honest about our histories. We have a profound responsibility to the present and part of that responsibility involves having a broader and deeper memory of who we are and the people who have brought us to this point of our history, “ Stanley continued.
“This is our shared responsibility in figuring out how to bear witness to these lives. It’s our shared work.”