History Matters: Reflections on the Historians Against Slavery Conference
Nikki Berg Burin, University of North Dakota
History matters. I say this to the students in my American history survey courses on the first day of class and at every opportunity I have throughout the semester. For me, this recurrent message and its corresponding coursework is more than just an effective pedagogical tool to engage an often-uninterested group of non-History majors in four months of historical study. I emphasize the relevancy of history to the present and future because I believe it and I live it. Like all professional historians I have a passion for developing a deep and nuanced understanding of the past on its own merit, but as a citizen scholar I also have a commitment to putting my historical knowledge to work for the larger good. In practice this can include creating scholarship that deliberately puts the past in conversation with the present so as to draw meaningful and practical lessons. To truly put history to work, though, it should also involve engaging and collaborating with change makers outside of the academy and on the ground. Many historians do this in their private lives as concerned citizens. I wish more would do it in their professional lives as scholars. Historians Against Slavery (HAS) is a modern-day abolitionist organization that serves as promising model and catapult for such work.
I participated in the second bi-annual HAS conference in September and left invigorated. The conference was hosted by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio – a fitting site for an organization whose motto is “Using History to Make Slavery History.” Founded by historian James Brewer Stewart in 2011, HAS describes itself as “a group of scholars who bring historical context and scholarship to the modern-day antislavery movement in order to inform activism and develop collaborations to sustain and enhance such efforts.” HAS members’ commitment to making their scholarship useful to the global abolitionist movement is refreshing and hopefully a sign of a broader trend within the discipline. Too often History students and scholars make the flawed assumption that because the discipline necessitates objectivity it must also be apolitical. HAS demonstrates that the rigorous methods of “doing history” need not be compromised by social activism and that effecting change is a worthy and appropriate goal of the civic-minded scholar, even (and perhaps especially) if that scholar is a historian. HAS members understand, however, that such a goal cannot be achieved on their own.
What makes HAS truly innovative is its purposeful collaboration with non-academics. The 2015 HAS Conference was attended by scholars, activists, philanthropists, clergy, policy makers, educators, and survivors of human trafficking. While the majority of presenters were scholars, nearly every session contained a non-academic participant and included among the conference’s key note speakers was sex-trafficking survivor and activist Rachel Moran. Because this was a relatively small conference and because the organizers created a session format that relied heavily on audience comments, the result was an extended and multi-faceted dialogue between people with very different experiences, skills, opinions, and approaches. Presenters and audience members often disagreed with each other. Sometimes these disagreements were tense, they were almost always lively, and they were invariably productive. For example, in more than one instance, participants passionately debated if prostitution specifically and slavery more generally can be voluntary. While differences in opinion and critiques of a presenter’s analysis are a normal part of professional conferences, what made the HAS conversations unique and particularly productive was that they were not merely intellectual debates such as scholars are accustomed to having with each other. Given the diverse backgrounds of the participants, the HAS conference discussions pushed everyone to consider the practical implications of the issues under consideration. I was constantly aware that we were not simply exchanging ideas, but that we were participating in a movement and that what we discussed could have a significant impact on policy and lives.
Historians Against Slavery encourages scholars to step out of the ivory tower and to put their boots on the ground alongside non-academic change makers who are leading the fight against modern day slavery. While this global crisis will not be solved at the biennial HAS conference, such meetings are an important component of the abolitionist movement. Robust debates and meaningful interactions among academics, activists, survivors, policy makers, and beyond are necessary and advantageous for they fuel informed activism. Moreover, they help scholars to not only refine their studies and arguments, but to use their scholarship productively. Historians have something valuable to offer with their nuanced knowledge and critical analyses of the past. However, such intellectual contributions will not reach the necessary hands or have the intended impact if they are limited to the world of academic publishing. Conversations and collaborations between diverse and interested parties are essential. History matters, so as scholars we need to put it to use by the most effective means possible.
 This essay contains the opinions and reflections of the author who is a member, but not a representative of Historians Against Slavery.