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Edda L. Fields-Black, Associate Professor
Carnegie Mellon University, Department of History

“Unburied, Unmourned, and Unmarked: Requiem for Rice

For more than 20 years, my scholarly work has focused on the transnational history of rice and African rice farmers both in West Africa’s Upper Guinea Coast during the pre-colonial era and Africans enslaved on rice plantations in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry in the antebellum period. Out of my research on rice and my most recent book project on the history of “Lowcountry Creoles” and the making of the Gullah Geechee, a collaborative creative project has evolved. Requiem for Rice is a new kind of collaboration, historians and artists, primary sources brought to life through classical music performance, painting, film, and dance, African and African-American history and culture told through classical music, we aim to assert ourselves, transform our identity, both how we see ourselves and our ancestors and how we/they are seen, promote deep reconciliation, and advance cultural change.

Requiem for Rice is simultaneously a contemporary take on a classic requiem for the dead, Africans enslaved on Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia rice plantations—in the spirit of Verdi, Mozart, Fauré, and Britten. It is simultaneously an African and African-American work of art, featuring classical West African dance, drumming, and singing, modern dance, and spirituals. Performed by a full symphony orchestra and choir, the lamentation for the sufferings and sacrifices of enslaved Africans becomes a celebration of the critical role that enslaved Africans’ ingenuity, technology, and industry played in the economy of the US South. I am writing the libretto on which Requiem is based from primary sources and co-producing Requiem with two internationally acclaimed artists, visual artist Jonathan Green, who has been called “one of the most acclaimed African American artists to come from the South,”i and filmmaker and director Julie Dash whose Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film by an African-American woman to receive a major studio release and the winner of the Sundance Award for Cinematography. Dr. Trevor Weston, Associate Professor of Music at Drew University is composing the lyrics and score.

As a Senior Ford Foundation Fellow and hosted by the College of Charleston School of Languages, Cultures, and World Affairs, I will collaborate with Requiem for Rice composer on the lyrics and score, co-produce Requiem, and be in Charleston when Requiem debuts at the Colour of Music Black Classical Musicians Festival October 22, 2017. I am also collaborating with CREATE Lab (in Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute) to design and build a mobile interactive website. We will use historic documents, photographs, interactive maps, and the latest virtual reality technology to extend the Requiem performance by enabling website visitors to experience the lives of Africans enslaved on Lowcountry rice plantations, working in a rice field, living in a slave cabin, burying a loved one in an unmarked grave, and traveling up the Combahee River with Harriet Tubman and the US Colored Troops to liberate 756 Africans enslaved on rice plantations six months after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

iSamuel Johnson Howard (Chancellor) and John M. McCardell, Jr. (Vice Chancellor and President), “The University of the South - Resolution May 10 2014,” presented at Commencement ceremonies during conferral of Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts to Jonathan Green.




Elizabeth Smith-Pryor, Associate Professor
Kent State University, Department of History

"Equal Opportunity is Not Enough: The Urban League’s New Thrust in Cleveland, Ohio, 1968-1975" 

As Americans we proclaim our allegiance to the ideal of equal opportunity for all. Despite our rhetoric, history suggests we have never agreed on how to define equal opportunity. Moreover, we can’t even agree on what equal opportunity looks like. Polls indicate a wide gap between black and white Americans’ views about social justice, whether equality exists, and what equal opportunity looks like in the 21st century. These differences likely rest on the significant presence of African Americans in the groups of those most likely to fall under the poverty line, endure incarceration, experience unemployment, and accrue less wealth across the generations. The persistence of racialized structural injustices demonstrates clearly that black American definitions of equality play little role in our national beliefs about social justice. Why does it matter that African American understandings of equality and opportunity do not significantly shape dominant conceptions of equality? It matters because these dominant understandings have so far rendered us unable to effectively redress inequality. Yet at specific moments in the past different visions of equality and opportunity offered alternatives. This project explores one key moment when one mainstream African American organization—the National Urban League—contested normative definitions of equality and opportunity. By doing so the Urban League shifted programmatic gears to its “New Thrust” and advanced a conception of equality where the “fundamental goal” would be “equal life results between black and white Americans.”

Given the failure of dominant understandings of equality and opportunity to address inequality over the past fifty years, I intend to assess the Urban League’s New Thrust with three major goals in mind: (1) to develop a historical case study that explores how one mainstream African American organization funded by entities such as the Ford Foundation worked towards alternative definitions of equality in an era of glaring inequality; (2) to examine efforts to develop and implement programs on the local level that took alternative definitions of equality as the goal. How did local (predominantly white) funders, including foundations, respond to these goals? How effective were these programs in achieving their goals? What made these efforts succeed or fail? and (3) to focus attention on Cleveland, Ohio; an understudied city with a rich past that suffered from and still suffers from racialized inequalities. Situating this study in one location allows us to recapture the actions of significant stakeholders including the National Urban League, the Urban League of Cleveland, and funders of the Urban League of Cleveland including the Cleveland Foundation, corporate elites, and public officials.

Perhaps more significantly, a historical case study of the Urban League’s New Thrust offers an innovative approach to exploring the contested meanings of equality and opportunity by placing the drive to achieve equal results at the center of historical analysis. Too often, scholars, policymakers, and foundations (past and present) fail to entertain equal results as a feasible response to inequality. In contrast, this project takes seriously the goal of the New Thrust and pays attention to its programmatic expression through one Urban League affiliate. Moreover, this study will provide needed perspective on the thinking of foundations and other entities that funded the Urban League’s efforts as well as the effects such funding had upon these programs and the meaning of equality.