Vanessa Holden to Lead the New Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative

By Phil Harling

Vanessa Holden is Associate Professor of History and African American & Africana Studies.

This has been an exciting academic year for our friend and colleague Vanessa Holden. She’s returned to Lexington after a fruitful time as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Center for Diversity Innovation at the University at Buffalo. She’s just been promoted to the rank of Associate Professor with Tenure. And she has an important book coming out in July with the University of Illinois Press, Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community. Her pathbreaking monograph promises to be a foundational text in our effort to understand practices of survival and resistance within communities of enslaved people, including the crucial but all too often overlooked roles that women and indeed even children played in them. And starting in July, Vanessa will be serving as Director of the Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative (CKSI), which will be housed within UK’s new Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies (which is directed by another wonderful History colleague, Anastasia Curwood).

Vanessa says the CKSI will begin its life as an interdisciplinary digital project that will tell the Black history of the University of Kentucky from its beginnings. The project will also emphasize the history of slavery and enslaved people in Kentucky’s broader history. “There hasn’t been a large synthetic work dedicated to the history of slavery in Kentucky since the 1930s,” she points out. “There’s been no big overarching project trying to characterize the business of slavery in Kentucky, or what enslaved peoples’ lives actually looked like,” she says. “It’s time to remedy that.”

Most Lexingtonians now have a vague awareness that their city was once an important hub of the slave trade. But because landholdings generally were smaller and populations of enslaved people were more dispersed in Kentucky than they were in the plantation South, we know a lot less about the lives of African American people in nineteenth-century Kentucky—both before and after emancipation. Nor do we understand the role that enslaved and newly-freed people played in the creation and maintenance of institutions of higher learning in the Commonwealth—at older ones like Transylvania University, but also at the University of Kentucky. UK was founded in the “emancipation year” of 1865 but was of course nevertheless deeply influenced by slavery, as was every other public institution in a state that was forced by the federal government to free its enslaved people, and that only ratified the Thirteenth Amendment in 1976 in a symbolic Bicentennial gesture.

The CKSI will be about promoting a broader and deeper understanding, Vanessa says. It will be highly collaborative, involving UK undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and, crucially, Lexington community members in its collective story-telling endeavors. “The project is aimed at understanding our present and our past a little bit better – and really engaging in that project in community, so people can interact with and understand it.”

In this way, the new CKSI is of a piece with much of Vanessa’s public-facing collaborative work. That work extends from helping to build a Southampton Rebellion virtual tour and historic site in Virginia, to exploring with Anastasia Curwood the deep and rich African American ties to horse-racing at the International Museum of the Horse, to co-creating a “Freedom on the Move” database of advertisements placed by enslavers and jailers for the purpose of locating self-emancipated people with the aim of returning them to bondage, and to participating in The Reckoning podcast that recently explored slavery, emancipation, and the failure of Reconstruction in Kentucky.

The sorts of public-history projects that Vanessa takes on are crucially important in our efforts better to understand and properly come to terms with the legacy of slavery, and better to understand and appreciate historical traditions of African American autonomy in freedom as well as slavery, both nationally and locally. There is so much crucial “memory work” for us to do in these areas, and Vanessa Holden has already assumed a leading role in doing it.