Scotland's links to slavery will come under the microscope this week in the latest instalment of an international lecture series.

Professor Earl Lewis of the University of Michigan will deliver the 13th annual Distinguished Fulbright Lecture at the University of Edinburgh.

His lecture, "The Grace of Repair", will discuss how a better understanding of historical racial injustice on both sides of the Atlantic can facilitate racial justice and healing.

In a talk that will range from the first slave ships sailing into North American harbours from Africa to modern flashpoint moments, Prof Lewis will attempt to show how understanding the past might lead to a more just future. 

Honesty is hard to come by

He said that many watershed events in the United States' troubled history are not always discussed honestly.

Learning to be open about history is the first step in learning to repair past wrongs, he added.

"Most of the time when we talk about the end of the Civil War, we note the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the end of the war in 1865.

"We talk about the freeing of four million formerly enslaved men, women and children."

Some US textbooks make a token mention of a government policy colloquially known as "40 acres and a mule", he added.

This is a reference to allotments that were meant to be offered to formerly enslaved people as reparations. 

Reparations paid to slavers, not slaves

Instead, race-based oppression simply took a new shape after the war.

"This policy lasted up until President Abraham Lincoln's assassination", he added. (Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the same year that the war ended.)

His successor, Andrew Johnson, took office with the goal of reuniting the nation, primarily by way of welcoming back former Confederate leaders, slave owners and rebellious states into the fold.

"What is not often mentioned, however, is that many former slave owners – in addition to being welcomed back into the United States – received a lump sum payment of $300-500 per head for the loss of their 'human property'.

"So the government actually paid the slave owners reparations."

And instead of offering former slaves 40 acres and a mule, President Johnson rescinded the government policy and returned over 400,000 acres to former slave owners.

No moving forward without understanding the past

Prof Lewis said that historical events such as this illustrate how easy it is for patterns of abuse to repeat themselves. And how quickly the truth can be overshadowed by a larger narrative.

"My talk will touch on a whole range of themes, from changes to the curriculum to the need to address these challenges openly. 

"There will be conversations with my colleagues here in Scotland about what they're doing already and what more can be done.

"There's no way forward if we can't deal effectively with the past."

Prof Lewis is the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afro-American and African Studies, and Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Read more: New book draws attention to Glasgow's ties to slavery

He is also the founding director of Michigan’s Center for Social Solutions. From March 2013 to 2018, he served as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York City.

Professor Sarah Prescott, Vice Principal and Head of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh said that Prof Lewis's lecture comes at the perfect time. 

Prof Prescott said: "The University of Edinburgh is also engaged in ongoing research into its own history and legacy of slavery and colonialism, Professor Lewis’ lecture will further enhance and support this important work.

Read more: University of Strathclyde linked to slavery in new report

The US-UK Fulbright Commission was founded in 1948 to facilitate better cultural understanding through academic partnerships.

Former Distinguished Fulbright Lectures have featured US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, Professor of Global Public Health Devi Sridhar, and former Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Read more: How slavery fuels the flames between Scottish nationalism and unionism

Maria Balinska, Executive Director of the US-UK Fulbright Commission said: "International educational exchange programmes like ours are essential to helping address urgent issues such as racial injustice and inequality as they have the power to change our ways of thinking, to foster connections across borders, and to develop compassionate leaders who are committed to working together.”

Prof Lewis will give his lecture at 5:30 pm on Thursday, November 30 at 50 George Square in Edinburgh. 

The event is free to attend, and tickets can be reserved online via Eventbrite.