American Studies
American Studies

Interview with Provost Maurie McInnis on new book, Educated in Tyranny

Sun, November 17, 2019
Interview with Provost Maurie McInnis on new book, Educated in Tyranny

Dr. Maurie McInnis, Executive Vice President and Provost at the University of Texas and Professor of American Studies and Art History, recently edited a new anthology, Educated In Tyranny: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s University. Gaila Sims, a graduate student in the American Studies Department, sat down with Dr. McInnis to discuss the book. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gaila Sims: Can you tell me a little bit about your new book, Educated in Tyranny: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s University?

Dr. Maurie McInnis: I was a professor at the University of Virginia for nearly twenty years and for about the last decade that I was there my research turned from other topics related to race and slavery to focusing specifically on the University of Virginia. But being able to tell that history was not actually something that one person could do alone. It was a history that was hidden in the university’s archives which were thousands and thousands and thousands of pages and so what we did in order to be able to tell this history was create a large digital history project employing more than twenty graduate students for nearly a decade. They’re still at work, and they transcribe all of the university’s archives because you never know what’s going to be relevant. Everything is xml tagged so that we can search and ultimately tie the many pieces together. And then a group of us, mostly faculty at the university but not exclusively, who’ve been interested in figuring out how we tell this history and how we shift the public narrative, all contributed to this book.

Gaila Sims: Can you talk a little bit more about the different people involved in writing this book and their relationship to this history?

Dr. McInnis: The people who were mostly involved with authoring the book were mostly faculty at the university, some of whom had been involved with the project for many years. One was an archaeologist who had been excavating at the university for nearly twenty years and writing archaeological reports trying to tell the history of African Americans at the university. We also worked with an author not at the university but somebody who we knew had been doing research on pro-slavery writing and professors who were involved in the pro-slavery movement, so we invited that individual. It was really trying to think about understanding how this project had always been the work of a community and how we could also make the book a work of the community as well.

Gaila Sims: What do you hope readers take away about the relationship between UVA’s early years and the institution of slavery? What do you hope readers learn about the early history of knowledge production in America and its connection to racial inequality more broadly?

Dr. McInnis: Nationally, in the last decade or two we’ve finally begun to discuss the indebtedness that many institutions of higher education have with the institution of slavery and those are relationships that vary institution to institution. Many of the northern institutions may have had a small number of enslaved people but mostly they were the recipients of largesse and money from others who were involved either in the slave trade or the banking business or the insurance business. Southern institutions were almost all beneficiaries of the institution of slavery in multiple ways—enslaved people typically built the buildings, they typically helped run the institutions as well and it was the slave economy that made these institutions possible. What’s particularly unique and distinct about the University of Virginia is its relationship with Thomas Jefferson, who is the author of the ideals on which our nation is founded, the idea that all people are created equal (and of course he wrote all men are created equal and by that of course he meant all white men are created equal). But it is an ideal that our nation has held but long failed to live up to. And so the paradox that is at the heart of the nation is very much the one that’s at the heart of the University of Virginia, an institution that Jefferson argued he was creating in order to ensure the continuance of American democracy but that was simultaneously built on the stolen labor of hundreds of individuals and that benefitted enormously from the institution of slavery in so many different ways. So, I think looking at the history of the University of Virginia is another opportunity for us to think hard about America’s original sin and this unresolved paradox of American history.

Gaila Sims: Which books or projects do you see Educated in Tyranny in conversation with? And are there other avenues of research you would like to see related to this project?

Dr. McInnis: Yes, I think there have been quite a number of both institutional studies and also some published histories that relate very specifically to the question of slavery and higher education. Ebony and Ivy is one of those, there’s a recently published volume edited by Leslie Harris on universities and slavery, and Alan Taylor has published a book called The Education of Thomas Jefferson and he’s thinking very hard and more intensely about Jefferson and [the University of the Virginia’s] early founding, and ours is more trying to tell the lived experience of people who were enslaved at the University of Virginia. So our books pair nicely together.

Gaila Sims: How would you like to see universities engaging with their early relationships with slavery and racial oppression in the future? What do you see as the most pressing issues regarding those legacies of racial inequality at the university?

Dr. McInnis: Part of the reason why my colleagues and I wanted to do the work that we were involved in at UVA, and I think this would be true on any campus, is we very much understood the linkage between the silence about history and the feeling of alienation that many students felt at the university. And I do believe that acknowledging and owning one’s history is a first step towards the conversations that we would all want to have about reconciliation and about how we move forward in the future. Silence about history creates a sense of alienation and it’s just an important first step. It is by no means the end of the work that needs to be done but it’s a place to begin.

To learn more about Dr. McInnis’s research, visit mauriemcinnis.wordpress.com.

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