A William Jewell College sign on campus
The week of May 8, a group of researchers plans to launch the first part of a documentary series on William Jewell College's historical ties to slavery. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

When an audience member at a student research presentation asked about Missouri Baptists’ response to slavery, Anna Bedsworth declined to answer. Bedsworth, a William Jewell College student who is part of a group researching the institution’s historical ties to slavery, wanted to verify her facts first. 

To observers, the exchange might have seemed mundane. But it underscores key tensions in the student researchers’ efforts to expose the college’s slavery ties and to make their findings accessible to the public. 

Bedsworth is a member of the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project (SMJP) — an independent group of faculty, students, alumni and others that uncovers information on William Jewell founders’ support of slavery. The students say they have had inadequate access to the college’s historical archives, which is crucial for them to find primary artifacts about slavery on campus and ensure the accuracy of their research. 

The SMJP is producing a documentary series titled “Untold Stories of Slavery and Resistance” about their slavery research, with plans to release the first episode the week of May 8 on YouTube. The group recently screened a part of that series and presented some of their work during a panel at the college’s Duke Colloquium, an annual showcase of student research. 

At that event, Bedsworth said she anticipates that the information about Missouri Baptists will be in the final report the SMJP produces about slavery at William Jewell. But in responding to the audience question, she didn’t want to share her initial findings without reaccessing college archives to verify her facts. 

The moment exemplified students’ rigorous approach, said Daniel Kotzin, history department chair, responding to an audience member who asked him to explain why the public should respect students’ work. 

“That is not hesitancy on her part,” Kotzin said of Bedsworth’s emphasis on fact-checking. “What that is really expressing to you all is that she is a professional.”

The students also find connections between slavery and other topics, and they dig into primary sources to make new discoveries, Kotzin said. “These are professional historians.” 

William Jewell students need access to archives to complete research

SMJP members say they don’t have the access to resources needed for expert research. Last year, the college announced that its historical archives would be largely closed from Dec. 16  through September 2023 due to environmental conditions, staffing shortages, disorganization and the need to update policies. 

Limitations on photographing or copying trustee documents have also made it difficult for students to double-check information they have already gathered. 

The SMJP had planned to release a comprehensive 100-plus page report in December 2022, but they postponed that deadline to allow more time for research and accessing college archives. The group has delayed its report again, this time to December 2023, and is advocating for revised archive policies.

The limited access to the college’s archives also factors into a dispute over academic freedom between SMJP researchers and the college.  

The SMJP started in the classroom of Christopher Wilkins, who was an associate professor of history and the history department chair at William Jewell. Before he left the college in December, Wilkins raised concerns that the administration’s response to the SMJP research violated his and his students’ academic freedom. He also said the college provided a member of a separate administration-endorsed research group with easier access to the archives.

Gary Armstrong, interim vice president of academic affairs, told the Student Senate and student media that academic freedom had been undermined but not threatened. Armstrong also presented recommendations from the faculty council that included updating archive policies

To address the issue of academic freedom as it affects students, the Student Senate created a Student Academic Freedom Task Force. The task force will propose amendments to the Charter of Students’ Rights and Responsibilities. 

SMJP members have also objected to a college policy that requires researchers to have special permission to access historical trustee minutes and other documents. The policy also prohibits scanning or photographing those documents — that’s something many other colleges don’t prohibit. 

The SMJP contacted archivists at more than 100 U.S. colleges, including those ranked in U.S. News and World Report’s top 25 private universities. The group learned that most of those institutions, including more than 80% of top-ranked private ones, open Board of Trustees minutes after 50 years or less and allow nonflash photography of documents, Wilkins said. 

Without copies of the William Jewell documents, SMJP members say they can’t double-check the accuracy of their notes or share images with other researchers for a second opinion. 

Student researchers Anna Bedsworth (from left), McKinzie Thompson and Christian Santiago participate in a panel and documentary showing at William Jewell College’s Duke Colloquium on April 21 in Liberty, Missouri. The students are members of the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project, which is researching college founders’ ties to slavery. (Maria Benevento/The Beacon)

That attention to detail and accuracy also impressed Michelle Cook, a music teacher and William Jewell alum, who worked alongside students when they viewed trustee records and helped them decipher handwriting. 

“They have the most incredible questions,” she said. “It’s not enough for them to just find a snippet of information on a page. They have that real desire to go deeper and to understand what the document is, where it came from, what’s the context. 

“That inquiry is magnificent to see in students.”

How the SMJP shares its research

One reason the SMJP is pushing for greater public access to their findings is that the information could foster greater understanding of the continued impact of slavery and racism. The SMJP research into the institution of slavery “can help us break down our implicit and explicit biases toward people of different races,” Bedsworth said. 

Already, the revelations have inspired the Student Senate to remove the name of staunchly pro-slavery college founder Alexander Doniphan from a senior award. The college’s official research group, which is separate from the SMJP, issued a set of recommendations that includes renaming the campus’ oldest building, Jewell Hall, and establishing scholarships for descendants of those enslaved by William Jewell and Doniphan. 

The documentary series is a key way that the SMJP plans to share its research with the public. The first part of the series is an introduction to slavery in Missouri and its ties to William Jewell founders. The SMJP plans to post the video to its YouTube channel the week of May 8. 

Other planned episodes in the series would address the the history of pro-slavery education at William Jewell, enslaved people’s role in constructing Jewell Hall, which is the campus’ oldest building, and a deeper look at how people enslaved by Jewell founders resisted enslavement, senior Christian Santiago said during the colloquium. 

“We’re hoping that this documentary series can stand as an example for something that is more easily accessible and digestible, especially for the student population,” he said. 

Cook spends 20 to 30 hours each week on historical research projects that include helping the SMJP. She said four people called her right after an SMJP presentation last year because they’re interested in learning more about the group’s research. 

Those callers don’t necessarily have ties to the college, she said. They and others in the community are “interested in knowing about the history of Black Americans.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.