Jennifer Oast is Associate Professor of History at Bloomsburg University. This interview is based on her new book, Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680-1860 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Institutional Slavery?
JO: It started with a primary document that puzzled me about fifteen years ago. My master’s thesis examined the Bray Schools, which were colonial-era schools for slave children funded by British philanthropists. While researching the school in Williamsburg, Virginia, I came across a list of the children in attendance in the 1760s; on this list, the College of William and Mary was named as the owner of two of the children. This surprised me greatly, because while I thought I had learned a lot about slavery as a graduate student, I had never learned that slaves could be owned by a college, as opposed to an individual. I started looking for as many examples of slave owning institutions as I could find, such as other schools and colleges, church congregations, and the public, and this became the topic of my dissertation and, ultimately, the basis of my book.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Institutional Slavery?
JO: Slaves owned by institutions faced unique challenges (and sometimes opportunities) that set them apart from traditional slaves. Although slave owning by institutions has been largely forgotten, it is impossible to fully understand the commitment of southern whites to maintaining the slave system without realizing how truly pervasive it was throughout society as well as how many southern whites became beneficiaries of slavery because of slave owning by a local institution.
JF: Why do we need to read Institutional Slavery?
JO: Institutional Slavery is the first book to focus on the lives of slaves who were owned by institutions in Virginia. While the records are often scarce, I have been able to piece together some really fascinating stories about some of the slaves who were owned by institutions. For example, many were owned by institutions but hired out annually so that their income became an endowment for the institutions to which they belonged, such as church congregations. This meant that they were hired out to different owners every year, in some cases for their entire lives, creating tremendous family instability. Other slaves worked at the institutions which owned them, such as the slaves who worked on college campuses, and this opened up its own sets of challenges. For example, how would the relationship between slaves and students be negotiated on the campuses where they all lived and worked? So Institutional Slavery provides insights into slave life outside of the traditional plantation setting. I think that many who might pick up my book, historians and the public alike, are starting to question the complex connections between slavery and southern universities, churches, businesses, and other institutions. This book lays bare some of those connections and will, I hope, inspire others to continue to research how institutional slavery functioned elsewhere in the South.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JO: I grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Civil War history permeates the culture, and I was fascinated by American history even as a child. Wonderful Social Studies teachers in middle and high school inspired me, and I also grew to love American history more as I started researching my own family history when I was sixteen. I am sure I was the only teenager in my high school who was excited to turn eighteen so she could get into the Library of Congress reading rooms! There was never any question that I would major in History when I went to William and Mary, only what I would do with the degree. After graduation, I taught in a public high school for two years, but missed being a student myself so much that I returned to my alma mater for graduate work. Looking back, it is hard to picture myself doing anything else. I’ve been very fortunate that so many opportunities have opened for me to pursue my passion for history.
JF: What is your next project?
JO: In Institutional Slavery, I touch briefly on slaves owned by the state of Virginia in the last chapter, but I have conducted more research on publically-owned slaves and plan to study this in more depth.
JF: Thanks, Jennifer!