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two Black men standing atop Calvert Hall during construction c. 1916

Project History

If slaves didn’t lay the bricks, they made the bricks. If they didn’t make the bricks, they drove the wagon that brought the bricks. If they didn’t drive the wagon, they built the wagon wheels.

Ira Berlin, Professor of History "On Slavery Question, No Definite Answers" The Diamondback (4/7/09)


In 2006, as the University of Maryland was celebrating its 150th anniversary, graduate student Herbert Brewer (now a history professor representing Morgan State University in the USS) and Professor Ira Berlin established a history course titled History 429: "Knowing Our History: Slavery and the University of Maryland." With the encouragement of UMD President C. D. Mote, Jr., its purpose was to explore and attempt to define the historic connections between the Maryland Agricultural College and the institution of slavery. 


In 2009, the course's findings were published in an introductory investigative report titled, “Knowing Our History: African American Slavery and the University of Maryland.” In the report, Berlin is quoted summarizing the intimate relationship between the institution of slavery and the university, stating:

“If slaves didn’t lay the bricks, they made the bricks. If they didn’t make the bricks, they drove the wagon that brought the bricks. If they didn’t drive the wagon, they built the wagon wheels.”

The report also details how Charles Benedict Calvert, founder of the Maryland Agricultural College and a descendant of slave-owners, held fifty-two people in slavery in 1860, four years after the school was created. Many of the people enslaved by Calvert lived and worked on his Riversdale plantation, a portion of which forms a large section of the current UMD College Park campus. The “Knowing Our History” report provided a foundation for the University of Maryland to build upon its work and to pursue a deeper, more prolonged examination of UMD’s connection to slaveholders, the institution’s ties with the broader community, and how this history has shaped the culture of the school.


In 2020, Dr. Herbert Brewer gave a lecture titled “What Made College Park Possible,” in which he challenged UMD to explore the role of enslaved laborers in building its College Park campus as well as its enduring legacy of slavery. In response to his call, Doug McElrath (Director, UMD Special Collections & University Archives) initiated talks about the role of UMD Libraries in this endeavor and Georgina Dodge (VP, Office of Diversity & Inclusion) acted to have UMD officially join the USS. 

After securing the Provost’s approval and finding its co-chairs in Lae’l Hughes-Watkins (University Archivist) and Joni Floyd (Curator, Maryland & Historical Collections), the first meeting of the USS@UMD (working title) Planning Committee was held in March. In July, the committee voted to change its name to The 1856 Project.


In Summer 2022, The 1856 Project collaborated with the BSOS Summer Research Initiative (SRI) to find rising juniors and seniors to participate in an 8-week research internship. The two students who were selected worked with UMD Libraries Special Collections & University Archives to engage in a historical exploration of the slave economy and its impacts in the area surrounding the Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland College Park). To learn more about the SRI and the discoveries of the scholars who took part in it, visit our page dedicated to the Summer Research Initiative

In Fall 2022, the first university course focused on The 1856 Project was created. Taught by Dr. Henry "Quint" Gregory, HIST 688A: Collaborative Curation: The 1856 Project, pursued the first official line of inquiry into the presence of the Dory family on campus and explored the means by which the university has benefited from the labor of local Black communities since its founding.


On February 1st, 2023, The 1856 Project held its inaugural symposium at the Adele H. Stamp Student Union on the University of Maryland College Park campus.

In Spring 2023, the students of the graduate course HIST 688A: Collaborative Curation: The 1856 Project unveiled a semester-long exhibition titled, “The Heart of the Table,” in the Parren J. Mitchell Art-Sociology Building that aims to begin exploring the Dory family’s legacy in and out of the kitchen, and beyond the confines of the university.

Header Image: Calvert Hall under construction, University of Maryland, c. 1916, University of Maryland Print Files Photograph Collection, Series 4, Box 3, Folder 9,