In 2017, the Richards Center partnered with the Department of African American Studies and the Penn State Libraries to host a two-day conference titled Rethinking Violence in African American History: History, Memory, Trauma. Nan Woodruff, Professor of African American Studies and Modern U.S. History, organized the conference, which grew out of her research into the legacies of racist violence since the Civil Rights era. The conference explored the impact of racial violence from Reconstruction through Jim Crow segregation and from the Civil Rights movement to the present. Participants included social activists, Penn State faculty, and visiting scholars from the fields of history, anthropology, political science, and law whose collective work expose the historical dimensions of racial violence in U.S. history and the terror it created. Associate Professor of History and African American Studies Crystal Sanders, Richards Center director and Ferree Professor of Middle American History William Blair, and Woodruff presented papers drawn from their current book projects. Margaret Burnham, University Distinguished Professor of Law at the Northeastern University School of Law, delivered the keynote address, “Racial Violence, Rendition, and Radical Lawyering: 1930-1960.” Dianna Freelon-Foster, a longtime Civil Rights activist, gave the closing address, advocating for the use of history to effect social change in the present.
The conference comes at a time of growing public discourse over racism in state violence and the criminal justice system. Dr. Woodruff noted that “racial violence has been central to U.S. history since the founding of a country built on African slavery. The legacies of racial violence and terror continue to resonate in our society as revealed in the persistence of state violence, the incarceration state, and growing racial inequality.” Rethinking Violence in African American History places the contemporary discourse on racial and state violence in a historical context and focuses on the recovery of the legacy of violence and trauma that can be found in the historical memories of African American communities, families, and individuals.