Slave History Takes on New Meaning for GWU Professor

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Yale University offers Dr. Joseph Moore Rich Opportunity to Explore Slave Narratives

Dr. Joseph Moore, right, poses with some of the other college faculty members who attended the seminar at Yale University.

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—Wallace Turnage is not a famous person, but historians are fascinated with the discovery of the former slave’s story. In a letter written to his family 100 years ago, Turnage recorded a vivid account of his escape to freedom. Dr. Joseph S. Moore, assistant professor of history at Gardner-Webb University, studied this handwritten document and other slave narratives during a seminar this summer at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

“His family passed it down in a small clamshell box for a century,” Moore explained. “Turnage attempted to run away five times before finally succeeding. His story—which involves all the drama of a great movie escape—would be lost to history had he not written it down to explain to his children the lengths he went to in order to free himself. It is a remarkable story of human will in the midst of oppression that I’m thankful to now teach my students. I’ll be incorporating more of those stories, many of which are still relatively obscure, into my courses.”

Moore was one of 27 college faculty members from across the nation selected by the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) to participate in the seminar. David Blight, Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale, led participants through a study of the texts, which included slave narratives written before and after the Civil War. The group also viewed original documents from the Yale archives, including letters written by former President John Quincy Adams and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

One of the documents Dr. Joseph Moore reviewed was a letter written in the 1800s by former President John Quincy Adams.

“I’m thankful to Gardner-Webb Provost Dr. Ben Leslie, who nominated me for this honor, and to my students and colleagues who have encouraged me to keep digging deeper into this history,” Moore affirmed. “I am very thankful to the Council of Independent Colleges, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Yale University and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History for this opportunity.”

Moore teaches courses examining early America and the Atlantic World, especially regarding issues of race, religion and slavery. He is the recipient of various grants and fellowships from institutions such as Harvard, Duke, and the Organization for American Historians. His writings have appeared in The New York Times and a variety of books and journals. He is the author of “Founding Sins: How a Group of Antislavery Radicals Fought to Put Christ into the Constitution” (Oxford University Press).

The Free State of Jones addresses the powerful effects of slavery in forming the American nation. (Photo Courtesy STX Entertainment)

Information from the Yale program will help Moore offer additional insight during class discussions. “Gardner-Webb students can explore the meaning of slavery and freedom from the accounts of those who lived in both,” Moore assessed. “Their struggles speak to the meaning of bondage in history, but also to the importance of studying it in the present.”

The students will also be able to connect their studies with cultural trends. “Slavery is finally coming back into the national consciousness as a history with which we must reckon,” Moore reflected. “With the film success of ‘12 Years a Slave,’ the current release of ‘The Free State of Jones,’ and the upcoming release of ‘Birth of a Nation,’ it is an exciting time to help students understand the powerful effects of slavery in forming the American nation.”

Located in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb University’s purpose is to advance the Kingdom of God through Christian higher education by preparing graduates for professional and personal success, instilling in them a deep commitment to service and leadership, and equipping them for well-rounded lives of lasting impact, Pro Deo et Humanitate (For God and Humanity).