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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., February 2, 2021—Williams College, Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ), and Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum (MSM) are partnering on a three-year project that will use maritime history as a basis for studying historical injustices and generating new insights into the relationship between European colonization in North America, the dispossession of Native American land and racial slavery in New England.
The $4.9 million grant was awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of its Just Futures Initiative, which in summer 2020 invited 38 colleges and universities to submit project proposals that would address the “long-existing fault lines” of racism, inequality and injustice that challenge ideas of democracy and civil society. “This opportunity will allow us to be more diligent about interrogating our past, so that we understand our present and the many social injustices that exist, and are poised to work towards a future that is just for all, regardless of race,” said Leticia Haynes, vice president for institutional diversity, equity and inclusion at Williams.
The collaborative project, titled “Reimagining New England Histories: Historical Injustice, Sovereignty and Freedom,” will generate new work and study opportunities, particularly for scholars, curators and students from underrepresented groups. These opportunities will take place at the collaborating institutions and will include four key components: a new research cluster at the CSSJ, a Mystic Seaport Museum exhibition on race, subjugation and power, an online “decolonial archive” spotlighting a diverse collection of stories from several New England communities, and expanded courses on historical injustice in early America for students at Williams and the Williams-Mystic program, and at Brown.
The Williams-Mystic program, a collaborative program between Williams College and the MSM and a primary partner in the grant, engages undergraduate students in a semester-long academic investigation of the sea on its museum campus, to generate new scholarship, student experiences, public events, and more. “It is our hope that these learning experiences will not only help students grow academically, but will also spark an enduring curiosity to uncover our past and shape a more just future,” said Sofia Zepeda, assistant professor of American maritime history at Williams-Mystic.
“History is always a living process, and this project investigates the powerful links between past, present and future,” said Christine DeLucia, assistant professor of history at Williams and one of the grant proposal’s co-writers. “This is an urgent time to reckon with the close ties between slavery and settler colonialism, and the enduring mythologies that have arisen from these profound violences. Equally important, it’s an occasion to center diverse communities’ longstanding pursuits of liberation and sovereignty.”
The Mellon supported research cluster will focus on how societies founded on historical forms of injustice can become more inclusive and just. Faculty, staff and students from Williams and Brown will collaborate on scholarly projects, sometimes engaging in research work as part of joint Williams-Brown courses. Both institutions will regularly host community practitioners who take part in seminars and discussions. In addition, two visiting faculty fellows with relevant expertise, one at each institution, will be in residence throughout the grant period.
“We are looking forward to engaging many faculty, staff, and students across a wide range of academic fields and areas of knowledge,” DeLucia said. “We’re especially keen to complement existing ‘memory work’ and public humanities endeavors at the college, and to build bridges with regional partners through this collaboration.”
“It’s very exciting to me, as an historian, that Williams is collaborating on this grant,” Williams College President Maud Mandel said. “As we continue to forward Williams’ commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we have focused attention on the history of the region and the peoples who lived here in the era before Williams was formed. This grant will support that work with new courses and resources directed to historical injustice in early America. The partnership with Brown and the Mystic Seaport Museum will ensure an exciting partnership around these endeavors with institutions committed to research, rigor, and justice.”
Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s approximately 2,000 undergraduate students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. The college is also home to roughly 100 Master’s students enrolled in its renowned graduate programs in Development Economics and the History of Art (the latter offered in collaboration with the Clark Art Institute). Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.