Published: 23 October 2015

Viewpoint: History is not something you just read about in a book

The School of the Arts Library

Nicholas Fuqua is a first year PhD student in the History department, and is working on a comparative study of the architecture of the slave trade in Liverpool and Charleston, South Carolina. 

Beth Wilson is an AHRC funded PhD, focused on the emotional lives of the enslaved in the antebellum American South.

Joe Kelly is a PhD student researching the links between British business and slavery:

“History is not something you just read about in a book. That was the message to local secondary school students on the Humanities and Social Sciences Residential. The three-day experience gave year 10 students from across Merseyside a taste of university life, providing a stay in campus accommodation and a series of sessions aimed at demonstrating the different subjects Liverpool has to offer.

“The History department and Centre for the Study of International Slavery provided a workshop on slavery and the American Civil War as a way of introducing students to the idea of research and how this fascinating history can be told through images, memory and even the buildings of the university itself.

“We used both current events and the University buildings to encourage the students to think about how history informs modern life. We led a discussion of how America’s slavery past informs contemporary racism, using family photos and the Confederate flag to show how the iconography of the Slave States underpins debates over American racism that continue to this very day.

“The students also got to take on some historical research of their own as they were introduced to slave narratives. The narratives, produced as part of the Federal Writers Project in Great Depression Era America, provide one of the few examples of the lived experience of enslaved persons in the Civil War period. They provided a great teaching point for the students who debated their strengths and weaknesses as historical resources, before splitting into groups and mining the narratives for clues as to the different ways enslaved persons lived through the war and emancipation. The students took to the task with great enthusiasm, relishing the chance to experience research first hand.

“The students also looked at the links between Liverpool and the American Civil War, highlighting the closeness between Liverpool and the Confederacy with goods, people and money flowing between Merseyside and the Southern States. These connections have a legacy within the areas built environment; from Birkenhead docks where infamous Southern ships such as the CSS Alabama were built, to St. George’s Hall, which housed a four-day fundraiser for injured Confederate soldiers in 1864.

“The session ended with a trip to 19 Abercromby Square, the former residence of Charles Prioleau the Confederacy’s banker in Europe. Now home to the School of the Arts, the building maintains much of its original decoration, including many images related to Prioleau’s home state of South Carolina. The students astutely noticed the depictions of slavery throughout the house, which looked to justify the institution in a Victorian Britain that viewed human bondage as backward.

“This provided a fine bookend to a workshop which aimed to prove that history can inform the world around us and can always be studied in new and interesting ways. We hope we will see some of the students back studying with us in the future or attending the Centre for the Study of International Slavery seminar series (www.liv.ac.uk/csis) which is free and open to all.”

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