Class Project Breathes Life into Historical Documents

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Stereoscopic card showing black men with wheelbarrows and shovels with caption, “Negroes at work near Cristobal, Panama.” Slave Documents Collection, University of Miami Special Collections

In her own academic career, English professor and PhD candidate Allison Harris has spent a significant amount of time in archives, using records dating back to the historical periods she’s studying to support research and to breathe life into her writing. Taking her African-American Literature students to the archives for a project focused on the era of slavery, however, was an idea actually inspired in a cemetery, miles away from the archives.

“I was walking there with a friend and we were thinking about the lives of the people buried there and the legal and social constructions of personhood beyond death,” Harris explains. It was in the midst of gravestones, many inscribed with only a name and a range of dates, that she thought about how the briefest details of a person’s life can evoke wonder about a long ago experience. “Together we brainstormed ways that students could use creative writing to engage with these constructions of personhood.”

After the students enrolled in Harris’s course visited UM Special Collections’ Slave Documents Collection in the fall 2015 semester, they created stories based on real individuals from history referenced in letters by plantation owners, bills of sale, and other legal and personal documents preserved from the pre-Civil War era. The eight short stories, together known as the Slave Narrative project, are told from the perspective of slaves documented in the records.

“Part of the goal of the assignment was to make the documents come to life through plot and conflict. But more importantly, they were to give their characters a rich and vibrant interiority that explored the emotional and spiritual limitations and silences of these archives,” Harris says.

Visit the Slave Narrative Project

The Slave Narrative project, now permanently preserved and available to the public in UM Libraries Scholarly Repository, features the following short stories:

The Example
by Nathaniel Bradley
English Literature major (2018) from Aurora, Colorado

Her Taste of Freedom
by Orlandra Dickens
Sociology and Criminology major (December 2016) from Wilson, North Carolina

The Hill, Named after some White Man
by O’Shane Elliot
Political Science major (Spring 2016) from St. Petersburg, Florida

The Match
by Marcus Hines
Computer Science major (2017) from Los Angeles, California

Betsey Simons: Freedom at What Cost?
by Anthony Maristany
Neuroscience major (May 2017) from Miami, Florida

Earth and Ashes
by Michele Mobley
General Studies major (2017) from Wilmington, Delaware

A Narrative of the Torments and Unlikely Freedom of a Child Slave
by Hanna Taylor
Undecided major (2019) from San Rafael, California

Nameless People, Keep Trekking
by Brandi Webster
Sociology major (2017) from Naranja, Florida

To learn more about the Slave Documents Collection, visit Special Collections in person or online at

Teaching with Special Collections

Richter Libraries’ Special Collections’ materials ignite curiosities and promote deeper levels of understanding of the historical record. Our librarians are eager to welcome your students as they begin to understand the research potential of these unique rare books, manuscripts, letters, ephemera, fugitive literature, and much more.

So, why teach with special collections materials?

Our collections:

  • remove editorial mediators because they are the primary evidence,
  • inspire new research opportunities, and
  • allow you to introduce a concept or historical event to a class in a creative way.

With the proper attention to security and the integrity of the items, students will be able to touch, read, and study our materials – engaging with the historical record in ways that transcend textbooks.  So, what can you expect from a class in Special Collections at Richter Library? We’ve developed two ways you can utilize our collections for instruction.

1. “One-off” or single class visit connected to a specific topic or overarching theme. This type of class can be arranged with a minimum of 2 weeks’ notice preferred.

2. Multi-visits, with or without student project or assignment. These can be arranged prior to a semester or one month’s minimum notice preferred. We will arrange thematic displays that enhance the topics you intend to cover throughout your course. After your class visits, your students can perform detailed and intimate reviews of the materials in our reading room to forge their own investigations. Past projects and assignments include: student-created artists’ books, annotated bibliographies, and blogs.

For seamless and positive results, we prefer a consultation with you prior to your class visit(s). With your input, our librarians can select materials that best suit your specific instructional needs. You are welcome to lead the instruction, or you can do what many of your colleagues have done and co-teach with our librarians whose breadth of knowledge of the collections make for lively and engaging classes. Our space is limited and we want to create a positive learning experience for your students. For classes of 18 or more students, we request splitting them into smaller groups for their Special Collections visit.

We’ve taught classes for English, History, Anthropology, Art, Architecture, Musicology, Geography, and Business faculty, to name a few. In fact, repeat visits from faculty (such as Profs. Robin Bachin, Renee Fox, and Kate Ramsey) and their students have made for stronger collaborations and more enriched original research by the students we instruct. Beyond our major collection strengths (Carribeana, Floridiana, and 20th/21st century Counterculture “Fringe” materials), our collections also cover a broad range of disciplines ideal for instruction.

If you have any questions or would like to set up a class visit, email Athena N. Jackson, Special Collections Librarian at

The Special Collections Division