Shadow Drafting

Tiya Miles, interviewed by Willa Glickman
Tiya Miles

Tiya Miles; photo by Stephanie Mitchell

“To the extent that national progress in the arts and sciences can be attributed to university breakthroughs of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the nation as a whole gained from universities’ exploitation of Black and Indigenous people,” writes Tiya Miles in her review of Rachel Swarns’s The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church, from our May 23, 2024, issue. Enslaved people tended campus grounds, waited on college presidents and students, and, as Swarns details in her book, funded the institutions when their bodies and labor were sold: in 1838 Georgetown University sold 272 people in order to pay off its debts, ensuring the survival of the school and the expansion of the American Catholic Church that administered it.

Miles, a professor of history at Harvard and a 2011 MacArthur fellow, is also a public historian. Her writing about African American, Native American, and American women’s history has appeared in, among other places, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, and The Atlantic. She has also written eight books, often by following individual stories through the archive: All That She Carried, which won the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction, traces the history of a cotton bag given by a mother to her daughter before they were separated by a sale.

We corresponded over e-mail this week about Native American enslavement, regional studies, and the state of the contemporary university.

Willa Glickman: You describe an increasing politicization around how to teach the history of slavery. Do you feel that kind pressure in university history departments?

Tiya Miles: I don’t. Our history department trusts faculty to teach the material that we find important to the various fields represented in the discipline. US history would not make sense without the study of slavery. Period.

In your essay, you observe that universities enslaved Indigenous people in addition to Black people—is this history being uncovered now as well, and are reparations being considered by the schools?

The oldest universities in the country often have histories of Native American enslavement, because European traders and colonists kidnapped and enslaved Indigenous people along the coasts before they enslaved Black people in large numbers. Colonial conflicts like the Pequot War of 1636–1638 in Connecticut led to the capture and sale of Indigenous people, who were then held as captive laborers in New England households and institutions or sold to colonists on the Caribbean islands. Founders, donors, fellows, and faculty at the country’s first universities participated in, and often directly benefited from, these practices. This reality has recently been uncovered in reports at Ivy League universities like Brown, Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, but scholarship on Indigenous slavery predates the recent revelations at universities. Reparations (or, as I prefer, modes of repair) for enslaved Indigenous people seem further out of reach than reparations for enslaved Black people (and we have to remember that sometimes these groups overlapped). This may be partly because members of the public still primarily associate slavery with Black history. The Harvard report (which I know best because I served on that committee) does include a recommendation to “honor, engage, and support” Indigenous communities stemming from the history of Native enslavement.

Like Swarns, you’ve written histories of slavery that focus on particular families, working around gaps in the archive. What is that process of research like, and what do you do if you hit what seems to be a dead end?

Archival research can be magical, maddening, and sobering. Finding just one mention of an enslaved person’s name or an enslaved family’s home in a record can feel monumental. At the same time, documents often present absences, misrepresentations, and heartbreaking descriptions of awful events. I tend to approach my archival research by first grounding myself in secondary sources and then casting as wide a net as possible across the primary material.

When I hit a wall, I try to find ways around it, sometimes by moving backward or forward in time, sometimes by narrowing or broadening my geographical focus. When I encounter a gap, I try to understand that absence as information that can tell me about the circumstances of the production of that document. I also try to identify adjacent records and voices that can speak into the breach. Overall, I take an approach that I think of as shadow drafting. I imagine the enslaved person or family as a shadow within the gap and try to fill in space around them using other evidence until I can discern the shadow’s shape. Once the shadow has a shape, it is easier to see and place those it represents into historical context.

You mention your own study of how some Catholic priests and elites from Detroit were involved in slavery. What similarities and differences from the church’s practices in Maryland did you notice? What do regional histories of slavery tell us that broader approaches do not?


Founded in 1701, Detroit had originally been a French fort town with a Catholic influence. My research on slavery in Detroit began with French and British fur trade merchants in the mid-1700s. Many of these traders/enslavers had strong ties to Ste. Anne’s, the only church in Detroit in that period, which meant church records were likely to include details about slavery in the area. It was only after receiving permission from the Detroit Archdiocese to review their records that I learned the extent of the priests’ and merchants’ involvement in slavery.

Besides the shared finding of how the Catholic Church enabled slavery, there are notable differences between Swarns’s Maryland research and my Michigan research. Maryland was more agricultural than Michigan. In Detroit, enslaved people tended to work on waterways in the fur trade, on urban farms, and in households, rather than on large plantations. This kind of work requires fewer laborers than a plantation economy, so the scale is also different. The period differs, too, as northern slavery faded much earlier than southern slavery. Slavery in Michigan was formally outlawed by a state Supreme Court case that mandated gradual emancipation for certain enslaved people in 1807 (but loopholes and lax enforcement meant that former slaves could be sold or coerced into contracts of indenture). By the end of the War of 1812, there were very few enslaved people left in Michigan. By contrast, the families in Swarns’s book were enslaved until the end of the Civil War more than fifty years later.

Slavery was persistent and expansive, yet always shifting. It is difficult to pin the practice down because slaveholders were constantly changing their methods and economic endeavors to fit new environments and circumstances, and enslaved people were constantly adopting new lifestyles and modes of resistance. Regional studies and microhistories help us to understand these nuances.

The current student protests across the country have raised old questions about the purpose of universities. Do you find that the recent revelations about universities’ complicity in slavery—and the conversations about how the institutions might address their history—shed any light on these questions?

I do think recent discussions of historical ties to slavery at universities have contributed to wider moral questions about contemporary political responsibility. Universities contend with dual purposes—and indeed, identities. They are idealized as places of scholastic purity, which would seem to indicate a separation from emergent political pressures and cultural mandates. But at the same time, they are supposed to be places where moral values are debated, leading to heightened political consciousness among young people and a central place in the culture wars. I wonder if this sense of righteousness stems partly from the monastic quality inherited from university life of old. Currently, universities are struggling to identify that line between the head and the soul.

Are you working on a new book, or other projects?

My eco-spiritual biography of Harriet Tubman, Night Flyer: Harriet Tubman and the Faith Dreams of a Free People, will be out in June 2024. I am currently working on a picture book adaptation of my recent history, All That She Carried, and I am researching a new book on the female abolitionist writers Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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