Editor’s note: Nina Joung is a former executive features editor of the Daily. Joung was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.
The history of slavery in the Medford and Somerville area is deeply painful and consequential to the development of Tufts as an institution. As this history is being critically reevaluated by Tufts scholars and community leaders, former and current Tufts students are taking initiative to be a part of the process to address the legacy of local slavery.
Donovan Sanders is one such student. A first-year who is involved in the Tufts Community Union Senate, Sanders became passionate in studying the history of Medford and Somerville slavery through his fall 2023 Black World Literature class with associate English professor Modhumita Roy. This class motivated him to apply for the Gerald Gill Fellowship, a program operated by the Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy that supports student research on broad questions of race and democracy. The fellowship is named after Gerald R. Gill, a former professor of African American history who took an interdisciplinary approach to address the intersectionality of race and American democracy in the 20th century.
Sanders attested to the impact the class had on his interest to learn about Medford and Somerville slavery.
“I took Black World Literature my first semester because with freshmen, you [are advised] to take a class under your [pre-major advisor], and my [pre-major advisor] was Professor Modhumita Roy,” Sanders said. “I wrote a paper for her and she said it was very interesting and thought that the [Gerald Gill Fellowship] would align with my interests as she saw from my paper. So I applied and I got the position there.”
As a Gerald Gill Fellow, Sanders is conducting independent study on Tufts’ connections to local slavery and indigenous populations. Sanders described the research process he is undertaking for the fellowship.
“[The Gerald Gill Fellowship] is basically an opportunity to help further research Tufts’ involvement in the slave trade … and indigenous populations in the Massachussetts community,” Sanders said. “I personally am doing research on demographics of ‘early Tufts.’ [I am researching] what students were here? … How many of them were Black? … We know that the first Black student here at Tufts was Charles Sumner, and I’m doing some more research on him.”
This semester, the Gerald Gill Fellowship is opening up to students like Sanders to support a university-wide collaborative project called the “Slavery, Colonialism, and their Legacies at Tufts project.” This multi-year research initiative will bring together the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Center for Humanities at Tufts, Tufts Archival Research Center and Office of the Provost to build on the scholarship of Professor Gill, the CSRD African American Trail Project and Tufts Digital Collections and Archives. The project’s inaugural event will be held on April 12 and will feature Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of history Craig Wilder as the annual Coit-Phelps lecturer.
Zoe Schoen (LA’19), a project administrator for the African American Trail Project , is another Tufts community member attempting to reconcile Tufts’ history with slavery. The trail project aims to “develop African American historical memory” by placing contemporary struggles for racial justice “in the context of greater Boston’s African American, Black Native, and diasporic communities,” according to its website.
Schoen reflected on how the development of greater historical initiative on local slavery can show the complexities of institutions like Tufts.
“It has felt hopeful to understand that [Tufts] has always been this complex and messy,” Schoen said. “This project is going to have to grapple deeply with what [Tufts] is, given its connections to all these different communities over centuries.”
Tufts’ connections with slavery has generated interest among students with diverse backgrounds, even those unfamiliar with this history. Nina Joung (LA’18), a former executive features editor at The Tufts Daily, became interested in African American institutional memory when she interviewed Tufts scholars for a Daily article in 2016: “Developing An Institutional Memory at Tufts: African-American History at Tufts.”
Joung described how she became interested in this history through her involvement in other reporting on campus, meeting figures such as Kendra Field, associate professor of history and race, colonialism and diaspora studies; Katrina Moore, director of the Africana Center; as well as members of the Digital Collections and Archives. The work of these leaders led Joung to realize that “Tufts [has] a really long history that’s not often spoken about in terms of our relationship to slavery.”
Joung further reflected on the challenges she encountered in the process of writing her article and learning about this history.
“I think one challenge was [that] … this was not necessarily my story to tell, I am not part of the Black community, I am an Asian American person,” Joung said. “I think that it was important to just keep in mind … the context of the relationship and the context of the community that I was talking about. I really tried to speak with the key stakeholders of the work that was happening [at Tufts] ... [like] professors who had worked closely with Gerald Gill. I think it’s important to make sure that the people that have the most at stake are the ones that are being uplifted.”
The contributions of these students are not being ignored. In fact, they are being increasingly recognized as important works contributing to the scholarship examining Tufts’ connections to slavery. Joung’s work was cited in a 2021 report titled “Institutional Audit and Targeted Actions Workstream,” which was an examination of structural racism at Tufts that was a part of the Tufts as an Anti-Racist Institution initiative headed by University President Anthony Monaco. Her discussion of the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Mass. provided historical context for the committee to recommend changes to their diversity, equity and inclusion policies.
Joung sees the report as just the beginning of the Tufts community reckoning with Tufts’ connection to slavery.
“[The process of writing the article] speaks to the fact that this is a history that, unless you take the personal effort to find [it], you’re not always going to hear about it,” Joung said. “I was just one individual who truly stumbled upon this opportunity, [and] the experts who [were] doing this work. … I think there needs to be more effort to look more deeply into Tufts’ history … but this report to me seemed like a good start.”
The legacy of Tufts’ connection to slavery is not just impacting how students are interpreting history. This legacy is compelling students, especially students of color, to reflect on their own experiences at Tufts and on what can be improved to make Tufts a more inclusive environment.
Sanders discussed what problems he sees in terms of Tufts’ treatment of students of color.
“I think representation in classrooms, content and professors and staff is a really big problem. There aren’t very many Clack faculty [members] and staff here at Tufts, and the ones that are here aren’t pushed to the light,” Sanders said. “There have been a number of hate crimes on campus. … Just feeling like we belong here, truly belong, or feeling safe on campus, I would say that’s oneof the biggest issues.”
Sanders further reflected on discrimination among those occupying higher positions at Tufts, citing the controversy surrounding Dean of Admissions J.T. Duck’s alleged discrimination against staff.
“[I] heard about J.T. Duck and what happened in the admissions process, … and a lot of reports have come out this year about black faculty and staff not being prioritized in the workplace,” Sanders said. “[And] there are small microaggressions from students and professors going on in the classroom, where maybe they confuse us for another black person or they’re a little dismissive to us because of our identity.”
As Tufts historians are preparing to launch the “Slavery, Colonialism, and their Legacies at Tufts Project,” students are optimistic that the Tufts student body can become stronger critical thinkers and citizens by understanding the ramifications of Tufts’ relationship with slavery.
Joung claimed that she feels Tufts could be heading in the right direction, but asserted that more conscientiousness about this history needs to be practiced by students.
“I think we could be heading in the right direction, and there are areas for improvement. I think bringing in opportunities for research and study sounds great, but … when you're doing this work, you need to be mindful of the community that you're covering,” Joung said. “I hope that there is a healthy, strong level of accountability in whatever work Tufts does on anti-racism.”
Sanders discussed what he would tell Tufts students who are interested in becoming better educated about this critical part of local history and Tufts history which impacts communities at Tufts and beyond.
“I would say that [Tufts’ connection to slavery] is a very complex topic, it’s something that is not explored too much within Tufts, and there is a lot of work to be done,” Sanders said. “If [Tufts students] are interested in joining … the efforts to progress the situation, they should definitely do it because we could always use more hands. … There is always more to unpack.”