Benedictine faculty member participates in seminar at Yale exploring slavery

July 7, 2015

Lisle, Illinois ~ Benedictine University's Wilson Chen, Ph.D.,was among a select group of faculty members nationwide chosen by the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to participate in a special American history seminar on "Slave Narratives" held June 21-25 at Yale University.

The Oak Park resident, who is an associate professor of Languages and Literature and assistant provost for Intercultural Affairs at Benedictine, was one of 27 educators chosen from a pool of 83 highly competitive nominations to participate in the seminar.

"It was one of the most invigorating, engaging seminars I've ever been a part of," Chen said. "It was a true privilege to work with one of the most important scholars in this field and also with the seminar participants, all of whom were highly accomplished, dedicated professors of history and literature."

The multidisciplinary seminar for faculty members in history, English and related fields used the slave narratives and other assigned secondary reading to comprehend the lived experience of slaves themselves in the transition from bondage to freedom.

Seminar participants examined both pre-war and post-war narratives. Approximately 65 narratives were published in English prior to the war, including that of Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery and rose to become a leader of the abolitionist movement. The pre-emancipation narratives were often serious works of literature that focused on the oppression of slavery.

The post-emancipation narratives, of which there are approximately 55, tended to be more success stories –triumphs over the past and visions of a more prosperous future. The most famous post-war narrative is that of Booker T. Washington, a political adviser and writer who founded Tuskegee University in Alabama.

"I've actually been reading and studying African American slave narratives since I was in college, and I regularly include these works in the American literature courses I teach at Benedictine," Chen said. "This seminar gave me a much clearer sense of how the scholarship has developed in the past 15 years and introduced me to some new texts that I had not studied before."

The seminar was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

"If anyone wonders about the importance of a deeper and more extensive study of U.S. slavery and emancipation, just take a look at some of our media headlines today –about tragic racial violence, the debate over Confederate symbols, voting rights issues, and the list goes on," Chen said.

Council of Independent Collegesis an association of 750 nonprofit independent colleges and universities and higher education affiliates and organizations based in Washington, D.C., that works to support college and university leadership, advance institutional excellence, and enhance public understanding of private higher education's contributions to society.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute was established in 1994 to promote the study and the love of American history. The Institute organizes seminars and enrichment programs for teachers;supports and produces publications and traveling exhibitions;sponsors lectures by eminent historians;develops electronic resources;creates history high schools and extracurricular history programs;and founds research centers at universities and libraries.

"Strengthening the teaching of American history at colleges and universities is of critical importance," CIC president Richard Ekman said. "This seminar provided a great opportunity for participating faculty members to gain a better understanding of the experience of emancipation and the 19th century events that were so important in shaping our world today."


Benedictine University is an independent Roman Catholic institution located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded in 1887, Benedictine provides 56 undergraduate majors and 16 graduate and four doctoral programs. Benedictine University is ranked No. 1 among the country's fastest-growing campuses between 2002-2012 in The Chronicle of Higher Education's list of private nonprofit doctoral institutions, and Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the fourth consecutive year in 2014. Benedictine University's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain's Chicago Business as the sixth largest in the Chicago area in 2014.

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