Scarlet and Black Research Center
The Scarlet and Black Research Center convenes researchers and practitioners across the humanities to examine the global dimensions of anti-Black racism. The center is an arm of the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice (ISGRJ) at Rutgers University.
Led by ISGRJ’s New Brunswick campus director Erica Armstrong Dunbar since 2021, the Scarlet and Black Research Center serves as an intellectual hub for humanists devoted to the study of anti-Black intellectual thought. The center brings together faculty, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates whose scholarly work aims to support the movement for global racial justice. Building a community through faculty seminars, community lectures, and the workshopping of humanities-based projects, the center supports and marshals the synergistic activity that comes from these research-based initiatives. The center’s Scarlet and Black Digital Archive documents Black history in New Jersey and fosters collaboration among digital humanities practitioners.
The center derives its vision from the Scarlet and Black research project, co-directed by historians Deborah Gray White and Marisa Fuentes, which began with a deep dive into the historical connections between slavery and the university. From 2016 to 2021, the research project moved across time and space, examining the vestiges of racism and anti-Blackness that literally shaped the cities and towns across the state of New Jersey from the colonial era to the present. The project produced a three-volume publication that laid the cornerstone for the creation of the Scarlet and Black Research Center.
History of Scarlet and Black at Rutgers
The multifaceted research endeavor known as Scarlet and Black grew out of the work of the Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History. The Committee was created in 2015 by then Rutgers University–New Brunswick Chancellor Richard L. Edwards in response to student calls for a full acknowledgment of the role of exploitation and dislocation in the founding of our university. Rutgers 250—a yearlong commemoration of the university’s founding in 1766 in New Brunswick—provided the impetus for asking difficult but important questions about aspects of Rutgers history that have been ignored for far too long.
Chaired by Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History Deborah Gray White, the Committee was charged with seeking out the untold story of disadvantaged populations in the university’s history and recommending how Rutgers can best acknowledge their influence. Marisa Fuentes, Associate Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies, co-directed a team of doctoral researchers who began to probe the university’s archival records for information about slavery. Distinguished Professor of History Camilla Townsend led her undergraduate students in an exploration of the intersecting histories of Rutgers University and the Lenni Lenape.
In November 2016, the Committee issued a set of Recommendations for how the university could make use of the history that we began to uncover, and the initial research findings were published in our first book Scarlet and Black, Volume 1: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History (Rutgers University Press, 2016). The Committee’s recommendations included the institutionalization of the Scarlet and Black research project so that the work of exploring the legacy of slavery and dispossession in Rutgers history could continue, allowing us to trace this history to the present day.
It was at this point that the research project took on the name Scarlet and Black, symbolically linking our Scarlet school color that represents Rutgers and the long-ignored history of Black laborers, students, and thinkers who have shaped the university for 250 years. The name serves as a reminder that Rutgers and Blackness have always been intertwined, that enslaved laborers worked to build the university, that the sale of Black bodies helped fund its early development, and that African American students, who have often worked to achieve scholarly excellence in a hostile environment, courageously pushed Rutgers to live up to its promise of educational opportunity and public service for New Jersey’s diverse communities.
In 2017, several campus landmarks in New Brunswick were named in honor of African Americans linked to Rutgers history based on Scarlet and Black research findings. The newly named landmarks were Will’s Way (the walkway from the Old Queens building to the Voorhees Mall), named for an enslaved man who laid the foundation of Old Queens in 1808; the Sojourner Truth Apartments, a residential building named for the renowned abolitionist who, as a child, was enslaved by relatives of Rutgers’ first president; and the James Dickson Carr Library, named for Rutgers’ first African-American graduate. Historical markers acknowledging how the university’s early benefactors profited from the slave economy were announced in 2021 for Hardenbergh Hall, Frelinghuysen Hall, Wood Lawn Mansion, and Livingston Campus.
With the support of Chancellor Christopher J. Molloy, the Scarlet and Black project continued to probe and disseminate this history under the leadership of Professors White and Fuentes, who leveraged our top-ranked graduate program in African American history to advance the research. They cultivated the talent of up-and-coming scholars by engaging a team of graduate and undergraduate researchers and postdocs. As a postdoctoral associate, Kendra Boyd guided the student researchers and co-edited our second book, Scarlet and Black, Volume 2: Constructing Race and Gender at Rutgers, 1865–1945 (Rutgers University Press, 2020), while postdoc Miya Carey stepped in to co-edit Scarlet and Black, Volume 3: Making Black Lives Matter at Rutgers, 1945–2020 (Rutgers University Press, 2021). Digital archivist Jesse Bayker created the Scarlet and Black Digital Archive with the help of student researchers and our colleagues at Special Collections and University Archives. Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan coordinated our public history efforts, and postdoctoral fellow Alexandria Russell managed Scarlet and Black communications, cross-institutional collaborations, and public engagement.
In April 2021, Scarlet and Black contributors, supporters, and Rutgers alumni came together to celebrate the publication of our 3-volume book series at the Scarlet and Black Virtual Symposium. Professors White and Fuentes reflected on the five-year trajectory of the project and discussed how Scarlet and Black is reshaping the university, while Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway delivered a keynote address, titled “Invisible Narratives: Racial Specters and the Making of Institutions,” which provided a deeply moving reflection on blackness and belonging in higher education.
In the fall of 2021, Deborah Gray White and Marisa Fuentes passed the baton to Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Charles and Mary Beard Distinguished Professor of History, who serves as the inaugural campus director of the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice in New Brunswick. Under Dr. Dunbar’s leadership, the Scarlet and Black research project and related initiatives came together to establish the Scarlet and Black Research Center at ISGRJ, where our work to document and disseminate African American history continues with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the School of Arts and Sciences.