New research institute to focus on the African diaspora

The global migrations, history and heritage of African peoples are at the heart of a new research institute at York University.

The Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples at York will be launched on March 25. Named in honour of the 19th-century anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman, the institute will be officially opened at a special ceremony on the 25th, preceded by an international symposium on African slavery, memory and citizenship March 23-24. 

The new institute is dedicated to documenting and preserving the history of the African diaspora and making known the story of the migration of African peoples around the globe, from centuries ago to the present.

"The Tubman research institute will continue the interdisciplinary research that is York’s hallmark by bringing many researchers together to work on African issues, both in historical and contemporary contexts," said Stan Shapson, York’s vice-president research & innovation. "What is equally important is that the Tubman Institute provides an important opportunity to advance the use of ground-breaking archival technologies and a strong base to extend our partnerships with community groups to impact social and public policy questions. Yes, the institute will create new knowledge, but it will also create new social innovations thereby building capacity with our communities.”

"The types of research that we are doing draw on subjects that range from music to biography and include culture and religion. We are interested in issues of identity and ethnicity, and all of these components have a gendered aspect," says York Professor Paul Lovejoy (left), director of the new institute.

By disseminating knowledge of history gained through interdisciplinary research, the new institute will fulfill a role as a leading social innovator, says Lovejoy. Research into cultures and diversity has practical applications in shaping public policy and its implementation, educating people to act as informed citizens of a global society, and inspiring artistic creation, communal ethics and local values, he notes.

The Tubman Institute is also committed to technological innovation. It is in the process of developing leading-edge digital technology that will make its large repository of information on the migration of African peoples widely accessible.

"We’re sitting on a lot of data," says Lovejoy, and the digital archive is growing exponentially. To manage this information, the institute is developing a special database in consultation with Scott Library and Emory University in the US. The envisaged database will be searchable in different languages. It will interface with other databases, including that of Emory’s Voyages project, which compiles data relating to voyages that brought enslaved Africans to the Americas. "It will be a very powerful tool [based] at York," says Lovejoy. A Web portal is also in the works.

Graduate students will play a central role in the life of the institute and participate fully in its research and technology activities.

The mandate and vision of the new institute evolved from work previously done by researchers at the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora. This centre had been based in the Department of History, Faculty of Arts, since 2002 and was also headed up by Lovejoy. A research professor in York’s Department of History, Lovejoy is the Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History at York and a member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project.

The centre was named after Harriet Tubman, the Maryland native who fled slavery in 1849 and then helped others escape through the Underground Railroad that moved black refugees from the United States to Canada. Fittingly, the name has been carried over to the new institute, which also has the study of the black diaspora as its focus.

Right: Harriet Tubman in a portrait taken in 1868

The activities of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples will help to increase the visibility of the University at a local and international level, says Lovejoy. It is the only academic research centre in Canada with the dispersion of Africans as its focus and is a recognized scholarly hub in this field. It has also built up a presence through its links with other Canadian institutions that aim to preserve the stories of black Canadians, including the Buxton Museum in Chatham, Ont.

Similarly, the Tubman Institute boasts many international links. The work of the institute is global in scope because the movement of Africans was a worldwide phenomenon, says Lovejoy. It affected numerous regions or "global worlds," particularly the Americas and the Islamic lands of North Africa and the Middle East.

The Tubman Institute’s 44 international associates represent 24 institutions in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, the US and Canada. Among them are the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull in England.

Researchers affiliated with the institute, both at York and other institutions, are involved in projects in more than 14 countries. For example, York Professor José Curto of the Department of History, Faculty of Arts, is involved in digitalizing records in Portugal, Angola and Brazil as part of his work on fugitive slaves and urban history of Angola. Nadine Hunt, a PhD candidate in history at York who is working on a dissertation on "The Caribbean Trade of Jamaica" under Lovejoy’s supervision, has taken digital photos of archival source materials in Jamaica. Another researcher associated with the Tubman Institute, Jane Landers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, is digitalizing church records in Cuba.

Through these documents, researchers will gain new knowledge on "how, when and where African peoples moved," says Lovejoy. In the process, the accounts of other past injustices that have largely been forgotten, such as the stories of the many "Amerindians" who were enslaved during the 17th century, will be uncovered, he says.

Lovejoy maintains that the lessons of history can shed light on and suggest new approaches to problems relating to recent migrations of people and present-day social injustices, including human trafficking. The current global trade in humans shows that, though 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of slavery, this inhumane practice is far from eradicated and the work of the institute is more important than ever. "We wouldn’t have slavery today if these principles [of social justice and equity] were really being enforced," says Lovejoy.

"At the Tubman Institute," he says, "we are using the African experience as the focus in order to touch on issues that relate to multiculturalism, past injustices, equity and citizenship."

This article was written by Olena Wawryshyn, communications officer, Marketing & Communications.