Hidden Voices: Enslaved Women in the South Carolina Lowcountry

by Siân David, UROP student.

I am a second-year History student who took part in the University of Reading Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) this summer. Over the last six weeks I have co-authored an online exhibition with Professor Emily West entitled ‘Hidden Voices: A Digital Exhibition of the Lives of Enslaved Women in the Lowcountry USA’. This exhibition will be published as part of the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI), which is hosted by the Lowcountry Digital Library (LCDL) at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. The aim of the initiative is to create digital content that focuses on underrepresented race, class, gender, and labour histories of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

1856 Slave Sale (British Museum)

Slave Sale, Charleston, South Carolina (1856). © The Trustees of the British Museum. More details.

My UROP project enabled me to thoroughly research different aspects of the lives of enslaved women during the antebellum era in the Lowcountry, and to produce an enriching publication that presents this information in an accessible manner. This was my first proper experience in researching a very niche topic; I enjoyed building my knowledge about this specific geographical region, and the way certain factors, such as the climate and the African-American majority in the population, influenced the everyday lives of enslaved women. Professor West gave me independence to take the research in my own direction – I believe this level of academic independence is lacking in most student experiences, and I was very grateful to have the exciting, if sometimes intimidating, ability to construct my personal research goals for the first time.

Using the 1930s Slave Narratives Collection from the Works Progress Administration, now held by the Library of Congress, which contains drawings, photographs, and posters from the antebellum era, I was able to construct a record of how life may have been for enslaved women in the Lowcountry. Due to the ‘archival silences’ that have plagued enslaved people, and in particular enslaved women, it was often challenging to find the primary evidence that I felt I needed to write the chapters of the exhibition. Professor West helped me understand that although archival silences are an injustice to underrepresented communities, it is important to recognise this lack of evidence, and to infer what we can from it as researchers.

Considering the lack of evidence in this way led me to reposition my approach to the research task, and it is an attitude I will apply to my future research. The topic of my third year dissertation falls under a section of the research I was conducting in ‘Hidden Voices’. I believe that my UROP project has aided my progress with the dissertation, as I have gathered information on the topic during these six weeks, and in November I will be presenting a poster detailing my research on enslaved women at a UROP showcase. This is an exciting event, and I look forward to sharing my knowledge with senior members of the university who will judge the posters, and with a wider audience.

An important feature of the UROP programme for me was the chance to meet other researchers, as well as doing research myself. Daniel Mitchell, who manages the UROP scheme, organised weekly events specifically designed for UROP students. As well as the social side (which was a blessing – research within the humanities can be extremely isolating!), the talks were engaging and educational. My favourite events were a ‘Becoming a Researcher’ lecture, and a talk by the UK Parliament Outreach Team. There was also a Summer Social, held early in the six weeks, which celebrated UROP students and their projects, and enabled me to meet other undergraduates during dinner and a quiz.

1802 Bill of Sale for 2 Slaves - mother and daughter (Duke)

Bill of sale for two slaves, Mary and her daughter Eliza (1802). From American Slavery Documents at  Duke University Libraries. More details.

When I applied for the ‘Hidden Voices’ project, I mentioned to Professor West that I intended for the UROP experience to help me decide whether to study history to postgraduate level or not. She certainly took this comment onboard, and invited me to experience a taste of academic life. Professor West, Reading Ph.D. student Liz Barnes, and I attended the 2018 Society for the History of Women in the Americas conference hosted at the London School of Economics. A highlight was talking to Dr Larry Hudson Jr. from the University of Rochester, whose work I used in my project. Professor West also invited me to be a part of Reading’s Research Cluster in Gender History, headed by Dr Heike Schmidt, and encouraged me to attend the American Politics Group of the Political Studies Association‘s Inaugural Postgraduate and Early Career Network Conference, ‘The American Moment: Past, Present, and Future’, hosted by Dr Dafydd Townley. Although I was in over my head with unfamiliar names and terms, I found the atmosphere of the conference exciting, and now have a better appreciation of the research and attention to detail that goes with presenting papers and answering questions at conferences. As an undergraduate student, I can safely say there is definitely more than meets the eye to life as an academic. The summer is packed with research, conferences, workshops, and thinktanks – things by no means slow down when the undergraduate students leave the university for the break!

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End-of-project celebrations. From left to right: Rachel Newton, Dr Jacqui Turner, Professor Emily West, and Siân David. You can read about Rachel Newton’s UROP project here.

I would like to thank Professor West for the unlimited support she has given me throughout my time as a UROP student. She has gone above and beyond my expectations, and I am very grateful for her sensitivity to life’s challenges. She has encouraged me to explore my interest in the histories of underrepresented communities, and given me countless opportunities to get involved in the History department at Reading. It is so exciting to have co-authored ‘Hidden Voices’ with her, and I look forward to the digital exhibition being published in the near future. It will be a pleasure to have her continued support during my dissertation, and I look forward to the challenge of beginning my final year of undergraduate study in October.

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