Cheryllyn Branche sat at the front of the room, her hands resting on a cordless microphone as dozens of people waited to hear her story. Seven months earlier, the retired Catholic school principal didn’t know this was her story and she knew nothing about the woman seated next to her, Sandra Green Thomas.
Now, as the room filled up with family and strangers, historians and activists, and as she prepared to speak publicly for the first time about the truth of her own family history, the weight of her ancestors’ journey from slavery to freedom was palpable in a way she’d not yet experienced.
Branche reached to clasp Thomas’ hand for a moment. They were two New Orleanians whose lives had been suddenly changed by the knowledge that their ancestors—men and women whose names they knew, whose pictures they’d seen, whose faith they’d been taught—had been enslaved by Jesuit priests at Georgetown University and sold to Louisiana plantation owners nearly 180 years earlier to help keep the university afloat.
“At this age and state in my life, it’s taken me on a journey that is unimaginable,” Branche told the people gathered at the Historic New Orleans Collection on that December night last year during an event arranged in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the University of New Orleans’ Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies.
That the Midlo Center facilitated this moment—a first-person discussion of the legacy of that now-infamous Georgetown sale of 272 enslaved people in Louisiana—should be no surprise.
Named for Herman L. Midlo, a civil rights attorney in New Orleans from the 1930s to the 1950s, and his wife, Ethel, the Midlo Center was founded in 1992 under the direction of Joseph Logsdon, a UNO history professor who saw a need for a scholarly center devoted to New Orleans history, culture, public policy and particularly civil rights topics.
After Herman Midlo died in 1978, his daughter, historian Gwendolyn Midlo-Hall, carried out her mother’s wishes to use his estate to establish a center and a lecture series that would serve as a memorial to his work taking on challenging civil rights cases that touched on issues of police brutality and workers’ rights. Eventually, the family broadened that gift into the Louisiana Board of Regents-approved Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Chair, naming longtime historian and civil rights activist Joseph Logsdon the first chair holder.
Under the direction of the chair, the Midlo Center seeks to push public discussion of Louisiana history beyond statistics and generalizations to increase understanding of the personal stories, faces and legacies of some of this state’s most vexing social and historical issues, including slavery and mass incarceration.
Gwendolyn Midlo-Hall, who inherited her father’s interest in social justice causes, was, in many ways, the perfect person to help Logsdon execute the vision. As a teenager, Midlo-Hall helped her father in his legal research by conducting title searches at the local courthouse. There, she encountered legal documents written in French and Spanish—languages she eventually mastered, enabling her to decipher the often meticulous notations in such historic documents that regarded the owning, selling and mortgaging of enslaved people.
Later in life, Midlo-Hall pored through these and other documents, eventually creating the first-ever searchable database containing the names, ethnicities and stories of Africans and African-Americans enslaved in North America. Midlo-Hall’s work now is on display at the 265-year-old Whitney Plantation, the Wallace, La., property that in 2014 opened as the only plantation museum in Louisiana devoted to the history of slavery. There, a memorial named in her honor lists the names of 107,000 people who were enslaved in Louisiana and whose stories are documented in her Louisiana Slave Database.
“Dr. Hall is one of the first historians of slavery to enter the archives with the conviction that individual black lives matter and that their individual histories could and should be retrieved,” says Mary Niall Mitchell, co-director of the Midlo Center who has held the Midlo Chair since 2009. “She was, you might say, an early adopter of digital technology and quickly recognized its importance to the field of history.”
Over the years, and most recently under the direction of Mitchell and co-director Connie Zeanah Atkinson, associate professor of history, the Midlo Center has played an essential role in helping to bring Louisiana’s rich and multi-textured history alive for diverse audiences—and to great acclaim.
"It is important for us to continue to promote research and develop programming centered on civil rights, to honor the Midlo family's bequest," says Mitchell. "Our work on this history of mass incarceration--a pressing crisis today that Herman Midlo surely would have responded to--is one example of this. At the same time, we are keeping pace with the latest developments in the historical field, promoting, developing, and collaborating on projects in the digital humanities such as New Orleans Historical, a web-based tour site, and Freedom on the Move, a database of runaway slave advertisements."
A few of its ongoing and recent projects include:
* TriPod: New Orleans at 300: Leading up to the Tricentennial of New Orleans in 2018, the Midlo Center, in collaboration with WWNO and The Historic New Orleans Collection, is producing a one-a-week series of radio broadcasts and podcasts related to New Orleans history. Drawing from an advisory board of nationally recognized historians on the city, the series has already won national recognition, winning an Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism.
* Freedom on the Move: The Midlo Center is collaborating with the University of Alabama Department of History, and Cornell University on this collaborative digital humanities project on runaway slave advertisements in the Gulf South, the rest of the southern United States, the Caribbean and Brazil. More than 6,000 advertisements have been collected by the Midlo team. Mitchell is heading the research project in Louisiana.
* www.neworleanshistorical.org: The Midlo Center edits this place-based tour site driven by student research and writing, a joint project with Tulane University. Since assuming editorial direction of NOH, Midlo has initiated collaborations with the Tennessee Williams Festival, The Historic New Orleans Collection, the Louisiana State Museum and the Preservation Resource Center.
* Humanities Action Lab Global Dialogues on Incarceration: UNO is the only national partner from Louisiana for this traveling exhibit, called States of Incarceration, created by The New School for Social Research in New York and on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art throughout April 30. The Midlo Center coordinated several public events around the issue of incarceration and facilitated community partnerships with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, Ashé Cultural Center, Central City Fest, Angola Prison Museum, Angola State Prison, local and national artists, local high school art classes and local university faculty.
* Orleans Parish School Board Records Digitalization Project: This ongoing project aims to summarize, digitize and create helpful ways to search the records of the Orleans Parish School Board—which span, in linear feet, the length of five football fields. Since 1983, the collection has been housed in the Louisiana and Special Collections Department of UNO’s Earl K. Long Library.
* To Be Sold: The American Slave Trade from Virginia to New Orleans: The Midlo Center was the 2015 national teleconference co-sponsor and planner for To Be Sold: The American Slave Trade from Virginia to New Orleans, a daylong symposium funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that took place in both Richmond, Va., and New Orleans, in collaboration with The Library of Virginia and The Historic New Orleans Collection.
The Midlo Center is also interested in projects that result in the collection of local and regional oral histories. In recent years, it has supported the collection of stories from and about the Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans’ black political leaders in the 1970s, New Orleans’ South Rampart Street, Hurricane Katrina and the 1977 election of Dutch Morial.
Raphael Cassimere, professor emeritus of history, says that given all of the work the Midlo Center has undertaken over the years, its name might give a false impression.
“When you hear the word center, it may portray the wrong image of a large, ongoing enterprise,” he says. “When in fact it’s basically two staff persons … and think of what we’ve done.”
The center was founded at a time when Louisiana’s budgetary resources were plummeting along with oil prices, he says. Despite that, its work has sustained, creating some of the most meaningful conversations Louisianians can have with themselves and with the nation.
Last December, at the end of the two-hour panel discussion about the Georgetown slave sale, Cheryllyn Branche told the audience something she says she often told her students: “An oyster doesn’t make a pearl unless it is irritated.”
“For us to have this dialogue face-to-face,” she went on, “gives all of us the opportunity to voice and to commit to cleansing and being whole and being one. And without that dialogue, we’re not going to get there. If we don’t talk honestly in these conversations about slavery, injustice, white privilege or anything else that separates us and divides us, if we don’t do it, who is going to do it for us?”
Learn more about the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies online and click “Give Now” to donate.