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Professor Hilary Green Sheds Light on UA’s Dark Racial History

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Hilary Green, Ph.D., historian and assistant professor at the University of Alabama (UA) teaches in the school's Department of Gender and Race Studies. (Joe Songer, For The Birmingham Times)
By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times

Curiosity is what fuels Hilary Green, Ph.D., and that has a lot to do with how she was raised and her role as a historian and assistant professor at the University of Alabama (UA).

“As a child, I knew there was a Black experience that wasn’t always in my textbooks, so I would look at places [and] ask, ‘OK, who’s missing? Where were the Black people? Where were the women?’ For me, that’s always on my radar. … I’m always asking, ‘Where are these voices?’” 

Green, who teaches in the UA’s Department of Gender and Race Studies, said her intellectual curiosity has led her to research and shed light on the untold history of slavery on the school’s campus.

Her curiosity also led to the development of the “Hallowed Grounds Project: Race, Slavery, and Memory at the UA.” The program, which started in 2015, includes a campus tour that explores the history of race, slavery, and memory at the university and post-emancipation developments in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

“The main reason for designing the tour comes from seeking truth,” she said. “It shouldn’t be the responsibility of faculty like me who are interested and curious. [Teaching racial history] should be ingrained in everything. … It should be [part of] the very first tour and included in promotional material throughout. 

“… One of the things I do with the tour and [by identifying past] missteps is help to retain Black students, especially those who want to leave when they feel like the university has lied to them, because they’re not being told the truth.”

Inspired by a Student

The idea for the tours came from a student, said Green.

“He made a comment in the form of a question: ‘Slavery doesn’t exist here, … [so] why are we studying this and that?’ We get that question and comment all the time, and it stops me in my tracks. So, [I said], ‘OK, we’re going to make this a teachable moment.’”

The ongoing scholarly project seeks to make accessible materials for understanding the history of slavery at the UA, Green explained.

“It is designed for current students, alumni, faculty, staff, and descendants who want to deepen their understanding of this underappreciated campus history through campus tours and academic courses,” she said.

Green went to the UA’s own archives to dig up primary sources, including receipts from the UA Board of Trustees documenting the buying and selling of enslaved people and diary entries about personal interactions with enslaved people.

“I can’t have students—Black students, in particular—in my class believe the myths that slavery did not exist here,” said Green, whose research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, as well as the American Civil War, Reconstruction, Civil War memory, the U.S. South, 19th-century America, and the Atlantic world.

The educator wanted to provide a tour that went beyond the university’s official tour that’s given by students to prospective students and community members.

“I could no longer fault that student [who questioned the existence of slavery on campus] because there was nothing in the [regular admissions tour] to even talk about what was in front of them [in regard to that history],” she said. “[The school tour] suggested a disconnect. [Visitors] might have seen a slave cabin, but they were told it was a garden shed.”

Green tells students that it’s always important to ask questions: “You never know what you may find and how what you find can change the whole dynamic for you.”

Early Curiosity

Green, 44, was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and she credits her parents—Millicent and Nathaniel Green—for her love of history.

“History about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, history not covered in books, were all part of my parent’s educational bus,” she said. “They took all of us, [my siblings, Joshua and Zachary, who are both back home in Boston, and me], to museums and battlefields, [such as Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania], all the time. … [Those trips] pushed against this subtle whitewashed narrative even when I was a kid because my parents made sure we understood that history.”

At an early age, her intellectual curiosity kicked in like on trips to places like the Boone Hall Plantation in Charleston County, South Carolina. The people who led the tour would often say “servants” instead of “slaves,” and the young Green would correct them.

On her dad’s side, slavery ran in his family up until the Civil War. On her mother’s side, “they were free people [of] color [in] south-central Pennsylvania from 1822 until the Civil War.”

“Without my parents, I wouldn’t have had that training to look outside of the textbooks and I was given,” she said.

Green, who was on a pre-med track while attending Franklin Marshall College in Pennsylvania, said she was considering medical school before she earned a bachelor’s degree in history with Africana Studies in 1999.

“I finished my degree and was taking my [Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)] at Tufts New England Medical Center, which is one of the major teaching hospitals in Boston,” she said. “At eight o’clock in the morning, there was a lobby for like 60 of us waiting to see three doctors, and I’m like, ‘This isn’t what I want to be a doctor for… So, I decided that it wasn’t for me.

“[Now], I’m deciding, ‘What am I gonna do?’ All of my friends were like, ‘You’ve always talked about history, about the Black experience, why don’t you go to graduate school?’ I knew a master’s could open up the door. … I thought about [ways that I could] change narratives in textbooks, museums, documentary.”

Instead of enrolling in medical school, Green attended Tufts University in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, where she earned a master’s degree in history. She then went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned a Ph.D. in history.

“I knew I wanted to focus on the Civil War era and Reconstruction period, and the African American experience,” she said. “No one was really telling the history as it should be told—forefront and direct.”

Green’s first teaching job was at Elizabeth City State University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU) in northeastern North Carolina, where she ran into some challenges, including from some bureaucrats, at the school.

Telling History 

After leaving Elizabeth City, Green came to UA in February 2014. “My first time coming to the campus was during the job interview, and that interview was important,” she said.

During that visit, she toured the campus, and saw “a guard house, a small round brick structure that [had not been burned when Union troops descended on Tuscaloosa on April 4, 1865],” according to an alreporter.com article. The “historical marker outside the guard house notes that, until 1865, the building housed the University Drum Corps ‘which was composed of rented slaves.’”

The term “rented slaves” gave Green pause: “I am applying for a position in the Department of Gender and Race Studies, and next to a structure on the campus is a historical marker that actually says, ‘rented slaves.’”

That convinced Green that the UA—with its history that includes four-term Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s defiant stand in the doorway of the school’s Foster Auditorium to protest against integration in 1963—was a place for her.

“It convinced me enough that I was willing to consider accepting the position if was offered to me,” she said. “Still, I wondered to myself, ‘How do I convince my parents and how do I convince my family that this is going to be a good thing for me?’”

Green’s decision was a good thing not only for herself but also for the university and its students. Her Hallowed Grounds Tour was birthed during the summer of 2015. That fall, the tour became intertwined with Green’s classes, making it part of her curriculum and leading to a name change.

The tours have grown in popularity, with nearly 5,000 visiting the sites, and she has shared her work nationally and internationally.

“[A lot of my students asked], ‘Why wasn’t this told to us?’ A lot of students sign up for my class just to take the tour,” Green said. “I now have NFL coaches and football players who have taken the tour call me and say, ‘Thank you for this research.’”

“It’s been a thrill of a ride uncovering some of the things I’ve found,” she added. “It’s my passion.”

To learn more about Dr. Hillary Green’s “Hallowed Grounds Project: Race, Slavery, and Memory at the University of Alabama,” visit spark.adobe.com/page/3pmJR6un1szMN/. To schedule a tour, visit the University of Alabama Black Faculty and Staff Association site to complete the Hallowed Grounds Tour Sign Up Form at bfsa.ua.edu/hallowed-grounds-tours.html.