An exploration of an unclear history: FMU stands in solidarity, honors victims


Photo by: Cullen Dore

A look at a standing slave cabin on FMU’s campus, a new site for research under the new USS initiative.

Ushering in a new era of diversity and acceptance at FMU, Erica Johnson Edwards, associate professor of history, and a team of FMU professors, administration and staff are in the process of joining the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) initiative. The goal of such an effort is to allow further exploration of the institution’s role in race relations throughout its history within the Pee Dee region.

“We are in the process right now of joining the larger network of the USS,” Edwards said. “I was the one who brought this to the administration with some other professors. We need their endorsement because it’s a university thing, and we must join as a whole.”

Once the university is initiated, Edwards will be the faculty coordinator. To officially join, the USS requires a few paragraphs about the history of the university and the plans under the initiative membership. If the proposal is accepted, there will be an official announcement of the university’s acceptance.

The Pee Dee region and FMU contain rich, important history regarding race relations. The impact of the USS would be to preserve that history and create more accessible, factual accounts of the past.

There are ongoing projects within the institution that study this valuable history, and the USS will collaborate and assist these professors, students, and organizations.

“There is already work being done before this,” Edwards said. “Like, there is a committee on campus that was formed to start looking at the cabins on campus.”

An important project that will be assisted by the initiative and integrated into the curriculum will be an oral history class and project led by Edwards. The course will be offered as a history elective with an honors classification, but it will be open to all interested.

“We’ve been doing an oral history project,” Edwards said. “How that ties to the cabins is that we interviewed people who used to live in those cabins before the school was founded. Students will have access to those oral histories in the library sometime very soon.”

Edwards understands and emphasizes the importance of the personal accounts of people in the Florence community and areas within the Pee Dee region. These citizens lived through the civil rights movement and the slow integration process in the Florence area.

“The Mt. Zion Rosenwald school was a segregated school for African American children in the 1950’s, and there are still some people in the area who went to school there for their elementary education,” Edwards said. “A lot of these people are advanced in age, and these stories will be gone when they pass.”

Members of the community are a crucial resource to the initial goals of the membership as they are living history. The oral history presentation will be one physical aspect of the larger mission to spread the historical account of race relations and racialized slavery within the region.

“Our theme for starting out is to try to focus on family and youth,” Edwards said. “A lot of times, those stories are missing from history, and in the spring, we had interviewed individuals—who were teenagers in the civil rights movement—who took part in civil rights activity. People focus on adults and students but forget teenagers.”

Another ongoing project under USS is research on the university’s cemetery led by archaeology professor Christopher Barton. He and a group of students are researching the on-campus cemetery, searching for the identities of the individuals buried there. The research does not involve any excavation or intrusion into the physical cemetery.

“The most important part at the cemetery is to honor the people that were held against their will and who had to deal with the brutality of racialized slavery,” Barton said.

His involvement in the USS stems from his deep appreciation for history and a desire to help convey the memory of race relations and racialized slavery within the Pee Dee region to the public. Though their membership will initially force them to focus on FMU’s specific effect on racial issues within the area, the university will expand its research to encompass the whole Pee Dee region.

“This isn’t just about the effects of slavery on campus but about studying racialized slavery and racism in the Pee Dee region itself,” Barton said.

Barton also emphasized the importance of the involvement of different voices and backgrounds in this initiative.

“As an archaeologist, the idea is that my specialty is bringing people together,” Barton said. “I always want to make sure that I am bringing in diverse voices and diverse backgrounds. It is so important because the last thing you want is a monolithic or singular voice to try to talk about these things.”

Both Barton and Edwards understand the impact of having administrative and community support with the initiative, but they also consider students invaluable resources.

“We want to know what will get students interested and excited about this, not so we can say we have students doing it, but so that students can take part in something they can be proud of and invested in,” Edwards said.

There are events scheduled for late September and early October. The first event will include the live, personal oral history of Dr. Joseph Heyward, which will hopefully entice more citizens of the Florence community to share their own stories. The second event will bring in a renowned poet, Glenis Redmond.

“Universities Studying Slavery—I know it says slavery in the title—but it actually covers racial issues since slavery through today,” Edwards said. “She is going to try to get the audience to creatively express their ideas about these things. On Oct. 6., we are going to have a poetry slam where students can perform their own poetry.”

These events were created to entice students, faculty and community members to involve themselves in USS sanctioned research and activities. If enough students involve themselves with the initiative, there are professional conferences that could become available to them.

“There are two conferences a year for USS to bring all the schools together,” Edwards said. “The next one is in the spring, and it’s going to be hosted by UNC Greensboro and Wake Forest; we are hoping to get a real grant to take some students with us.”

With FMU’s admission into the USS, there will be the potential to create a community that can understand and grow from its past and teaches other people the lessons that history grants us.

“We want this to be not just the professors telling everyone what to know and what to do. We want this to be community members, staff members, and students learning and teaching each other,” Edwards said. “I think that has maybe been the problem in the past with race relations in the Florence area; there has not been more of that communication. We do have really high hopes for the initiative. It’s a big goal, but we still want to work toward it.”