In the years before the Civil War, faculty and students at Southern universities (and some Northern ones, too) turned to arguments from history, philosophy, religion, and economics to support slavery. These engaged scholars spoke to judges, legislators, and voters about the supposed benefits of slavery. Antislavery advocates, often outside of the academy, also turned to the humanities to counter such proslavery arguments. In these ways, the public and academic discourses overlapped and influenced each other. The momentous struggle over slavery, in which universities played an important and often-forgotten role, reveals the central place that humanities can and should play in public debate. It reveals some grand challenges for the humanities in analyzing and responding to epic questions of equality and freedom.
Alfred L. Brophy holds the Paul and Charlene Jones chair in law at the University of Alabama. He writes about race and property in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is interested in how the technology of law helped create and sustain slavery and then segregation after the Civil War and also how humble people whose names have been largely forgotten helped overturn those systems. His books include University, Court, and Slave: Proslavery Thought in the Southern Academy and Judiciary and the Coming of Civil War (Oxford 2016), Reparations Pro and Con (Oxford 2006), and Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921 (Oxford 2002). He is working on an expansive volume on the idea of equality among African American intellectuals in the early 20th century, tentatively titled Reading the Great Constitutional Dream Book: The Black Origins of Brown. Also, he is using social science techniques to determine what types of food his beloved, geriatric rescue cat, King Tut, prefers.
Center for the Humanities
and the Public Sphere
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University of Florida
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