Everywhere and Nowhere: Slavery on the University Campus

Yesterday in class, as we begin to read about the antebellum period in The Color of Christ, we went on a brief tour of a few slavery related sites on the campus here at UA. We started with an exhibit at Gorgas Library curated by religious studies major, Benjamin Flax. Flax has exhibited a number of documents related to slaves owned or rented by the university and its faculty in the nineteenth century. What stood out to me as we walked around and read the receipts and glanced at the entries in the trustees’ records was the banality of it all. Prices, hours, projects. Nothing special. Just the running of an institution. The university rented a slave named William, who was a talented blacksmith, to build a fence around the Gorgas House.  Institutional growth.

Our class was lucky enough to have Amy Chen from the university special collections library give us some context for the exhibit. Dr. Chen explained how UA’s use of slave labor was not out of the ordinary. The banality of slave labor at UA reflects the banality of slave labor throughout higher education in the nineteenth century. The University of Virginia, University of South Carolina, University of North Carolina, Emory University (where I earned my Ph.D.) and even universities in the North have their own slavery histories. It was everywhere in the antebellum United States.

We walked from Gorgas Library down the quad to the President’s Mansions,. Then we walked behind the mansion.

Here we found the slave quarters. Surrounded by shrubs and with a small rose garden in front, the white painted structures are surprisingly quaint. This one pictured, on the east side of the mansion grounds, is unmarked. Only two students in our class knew it was there or what it was. It was hidden in plain sight–perfectly manicured yet utterly unexplained. I had heard there was a marker explaining what the four small houses are but it I didn’t see it.

After the slave quarters, we walked back up the quad to the Biology Building. Next to the biology building is a small graveyard with this plaque in front of it.


Again, only a couple students had ever seen this. It’s everywhere. And nowhere.

We then returned to where we started, Manly Hall, the building where we have class each week. Manly Hall is named for Basil Manly, the second president of the university. Manly was a Baptist minister and he was everywhere. He was the pastor at First Baptist in Charleston, South Carolina during the call for nullification (the city where I earned my B.A. and which has its own tangled history or slavery). He led the southern Baptists out of their denominational ties with the North. He swore in Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He owned 38 slaves. He preached an 1845 sermon “Duties of Masters and Servants” where he argued that slavery “made slaves happy and industrious and masters prosperous and beneficent.” He was everywhere.

And here the stories of slavery, religion and the University of Alabama intersect–in my office and my classroom in Manly Hall. We know Basil Manly’s religion. It was a southern Baptist religion that preached submission, social order, and freedom in the next life. We know his Jesus. And we teach religion in his Hall.

But what do we know of the religious life of the slaves in those white cabins? Who was their Jesus? In his local history, A History of the Black Church in Tuscaloosa, Forrest Moore notes that most churches in Tuscaloosa were integrated before the Civil War. Slaves worshiped alongside their masters in Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches. But what about outside the white dominated churches? What was the slave religion of the university? According to Moore there were 10, 145 slaves in Tuscaloosa county in 1860. Did they meet in hush arbors? Were there black congregations? Was the invisible institution everywhere or nowhere? The university wasn’t a plantation and many of the slaves in town did domestic or skilled labor. How did the small urban setting of Tuscaloosa shape religios practice of slaves? Were there sermons preached in those white cabins? Songs sung? These are the questions I ask in Basil Manly Hall.

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