Office of Public Affairs
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Oct. 11, 2000
OSWEGO -- Dr. Shirley Jackson, associate professor of history at Oswego State, returned to the continent of her ancestors over the summer. She calls her tour of Ghana and its historic sites associated with the slave trade "a personal pilgrimage," and she tells how the experience will inspirit and amplify her teaching.
"If you teach African-American history, at some point you need to make the pilgrimage," she says.
Jackson traces her family back through a great-grandfather who was a slave on a Louisiana plantation, where her own father grew up.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, many slaves were brought to America from the Gold Coast of Africa, now Ghana, she says. "It seems that this is where my family came from," she says. "It seems as though we were Ashanti."
Her tours of the imposing European-built fortresses in present-day Ghana where slaves were gathered, 200 to 300 at a time, before departure to the New World evoked for her "the horrific conditions of the Atlantic slave trade," she says. "Five million slaves came through these ports."
The experience will deepen her teaching, she says. "Students always asked me, 'Have you been to Africa?' and I always somehow felt guilty that I hadn't been. Now I can talk about the conditions of capture and holding with a much greater sense of reality and sense of kinship."
A highlight of her travels was "the sense of connectedness that I felt there. "The whole tour was very emotional," she explains. "You sense that you have come home. You do feel that you have found your ancestors."
She initiated contacts at the University of Ghana and began to identify archival sources for her research.
Jackson's travels in West Africa delivered her to the depths of a centuries-old slave castle and to some of the darkest moments in her family's history, but they also took her to heights of professional appreciation.
From Ghana, she went to Benin, where she delivered two lectures at the National University of Benin about her research on enslaved women who escaped to freedom. She has made presentations on her research in this area before -- at a conference of the Organization of American Historians and while a fellow at Harvard University's W. E. B. DuBois Institute, for instance -- but this was the first time she spoke before an international audience.
Between 150 and 200 people crowded the into the lecture hall and responded powerfully to her talk, she says. "Even the male students got caught up in the research," she says. "I was at my professional best."
Scholars of slave resistance have focused on male runaways, Jackson says, to the virtual exclusion of females. "It is true that women did not flee as frequently as men," she says, "but it is very clear the phenomenon of female slaves running away was more frequent and complex than historians have recognized."
Jackson's ongoing research aims to present an accurate picture of runaway slave women and correct the historical record.
In Benin, the women in the audience especially, she says, "were empowered to see an African-American professional woman speaking about women who ran away -- who had the strength, the endurance, the will to do that. They saw a strong African-American professional female at her best, and they were bold in their comments."
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CONTACT: Dr. Shirley Jackson, 341-3446

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