Led by NYU Journalism Professor Rachel Swarns, research will provide understanding of the role slavery played in building today’s educational, financial, and religious institutions

NYU Journalism Professor Rachel Swarns. Photo credit: Lise Guillard

Rachel Swarns, a New York University journalism professor and author of The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church (June 13), has launched a project aimed at reshaping Americans’ understanding of the connections between slavery and contemporary institutions.

“Hidden Legacies: Slavery, Race, and the Making of 21st Century America” builds on Swarns’ New York Times series of stories about Georgetown University, the Jesuit priests who founded and ran the college, and their ties to slavery as well as her later reporting on the Catholic nuns who bought and sold enslaved people.

“In recent years, both journalists and historians have begun to examine the role that slavery played in fueling the growth of contemporary institutions in the United States,” explains Swarns, a professor in NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. “The project is intended to profoundly reshape Americans’ understanding of the connections between slavery and contemporary institutions, and to bring journalists, scholars, and students together to promote and produce work deeply rooted in history that illuminates the experience of people of color in the United States.”

cover of The 272.

“Hidden Legacies” seeks to assemble historical documents—as a digital repository of archival records—in order to chronicle the foundational role that slavery played in the emergence of key institutions. Its initial focus will be on colleges and universities as well as religious and financial institutions.

“Identifying, locating, and accessing the archival records necessary to do this research remains challenging,” observes Swarns. “Archival record sets are scattered across the country—in libraries, historical societies, and university and corporate archives.”

“This digital archive will give journalists, scholars, students and community members the tools—the historical records—to report on and to document our contemporary connections to our nation’s history of forced bondage,” adds Swarns.

Swarns has received funding for the “Hidden Legacies” initiative, which includes an ongoing public lecture series that began in the fall of 2022, from NYU’s College of Arts and Science and the Carter Journalism Institute’s Venture Capital Fund, which provides start-up funding for faculty initiatives that address critical issues relating to journalism, democracy, and other issues of societal concern.

Prior to joining the faculty at NYU, Swarns spent 22 years as a full-time reporter and correspondent for the New York Times, where she served as a senior writer and a Washington correspondent, and became the first African-American bureau chief in South Africa. Swarns, an elected member of the Society of American Historians, currently serves as a contributing writer for the New York Times. She is the author of American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, which traces the former first lady’s forebears back to the 1800s, identifying, for the first time, the white ancestors in Mrs. Obama’s family tree through archival research and DNA testing. She is also a co-author of Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives, which unearthed hundreds of photographs that had languished unseen and unpublished for decades.

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