In February, a student from Birmingham’s Jewish community will be presenting an exhibit at the University of Alabama chronicling an unpleasant chapter in the university’s history — slavery.
For a year and a half, senior Benjamin Flax has been researching slavery at the university as part of an independent studies class with Josh Rothman.
The university opened in 1831, and Flax has been going through “documents from the board of trustees, proctors, presidents, and members of the surrounding community dealing with slavery and slave labor at the university.”
The documents include issues relating to labor, hiring, housing and regulations spanning a 30-year period.
Flax said that the university owned up to four slaves at one point, and they were owned by the Board of Trustees. Other slaves were “rented” as needed. The slaves were used for a range of purposes, from constructing buildings on campus to domestic duties.
He finds the day-to-day activities of slaves to be the most important and interesting aspect of his research.
The exhibit opens Feb. 3 in the Williams Americana Collection on the third floor of Gorgas Library, and will be available during regular library hours throughout the month, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays.
Flax said he decided to do an exhibit rather than publish in an academic journal so a wider audience could be exposed to the materials.
He is also not working on a narrative for the exhibit — just letting the documents speak for themselves. There are about 40 original documents in the exhibit, less than one-fourth of the sources he has been working with.
One document is a bill of sale from the university’s first slave, who was purchased in 1828 to help architect William Nichols with early construction on campus — structures that were ultimately burned by Union soldiers in 1865.
Since the age of 10, Flax said he had a fascination of the South’s tangled legacy of slavery and civil rights. After his family moved to Birmingham, he took part in a partnership between Temple Beth-El and the 16th Street Baptist Church “dealing with the black experience and the Jewish experience in the post-World War II era.”
At Alabama, “many professors” helped the history and religious studies major develop a strong appreciation for the study of slavery in America.
“I found it to be an important subject of study because of the misunderstanding and depictions of the past,” especially in film and literature, Flax said. “Many stories, memorials and films romanticize or place ill focus on the system of slavery.”
Several other universities have recently undergone research projects to uncover their ties with slavery. Flax said that it is at least some recognition of the role slaves had in contributing to the university of today.
In 2004, the Faculty Senate issued a formal apology for slavery.
Flax wants the public “to see and read original information regarding all aspects of slavery” and perhaps spark a conversation.
There will also be an opening event on Feb. 6 at 5:30 p.m.