Princeton’s first nine presidents owned slaves.  

Yale’s first graduate-level courses and scholarships were funded by rent from a slave plantation.

Harvard’s students and leaders ate meals and slept in rooms prepared by slaves.

Columbia subsidized slave traders with below-market loans.

Georgetown University sold 272 slaves in 1838 to pay its way out of debt.

 

Slavery is inseparable from the history of American universities. For many years, students at college campuses across America attended lectures in buildings built by slaves. The beds they slept in and the
floors they walked on were maintained by slaves. They were taught by professors who were  slaveholders themselves.

This troubling connection between American universities and slavery has been overlooked for centuries despite the lasting effects that this brutal oppression has had on millions of lives. Only recently have universities begun trying to acknowledge their pasts and address these wrongs with new research initiatives, public awareness campaigns, and plans for reparations.

Yet, even as many strive to atone for the past, others still struggle to reconcile such realities. In 2015, the University of Georgia came under criticism for secretly reburying the remains of former slaves in a nearby cemetery when the remains were discovered during a building expansion project. Although the university eventually constructed a memorial in honor of those who had died and dedicated a research fund towards understanding their history, many claim these steps were too late and hypocritical.

For every step forward on the path of racial justice, there are many such instances in which the legacy of slavery in America continues to be buried and hidden from sight. We examine some of the ways in which universities are trying to bring these dark pasts to light and address the long history of slavery on American campuses.

Internal Research

In 2003, Brown University became the first university to publish an official document detailing their historic ties with slavery, paving the way for others to do the same. The report found that the university was extensively connected to the enterprise of slavery through its leaders and endowers who often participated in the slave trade themselves and funded the university through their endeavors. 

The College of William and Mary similarly created The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation in 2009. The project includes symposiums and courses dedicated to the history of slavery at the College of William and Mary that were developed after internal research brought to light the college’s historic reliance on slave labor and the slave trade. The Project is named for Lemon, a man who was once enslaved by founders William and Mary.

Princeton University, Harvard University, and the University of Pennsylvania are among several other institutions that have established research teams and initiatives since these initial reports dedicated solely to uncovering their university’s ties to slavery as well. 

 

Sharing research and scholarship

Many universities have begun sharing their research and scholarship in an effort to bring greater awareness about these issues and connect resources for finding solutions. 

Most notably, the University of Virginia established a consortium of universities studying slavery at their instituitions in 2014. While originally, only universities in Virginia were included, the consortium quickly gathered national interest. Currently, several dozen private and public universities across the country are involved in Universities Studying Slavery (USS) which hosts a national symposium on enslavement in universities among other projects to address these injustices.

After establishing the Harvard and Slavery initiative, Harvard has also similarly hosted a national conference on slavery at American colleges and universities in 2017.

 

Public Awareness

While many institutions have been aware of their historic ties to slavery internally, the public remains vastly unaware of this issue. Some universities have tried using public displays to more fully acknowledge the history of their campuses. 

Rutgers University, for example, renamed several of its prominent buildings in 2017 to acknowledge former slaves who helped build and maintain the campus. Georgetown similarly changed the name of buildings named after slave trading presidents and replaced them with the names of former slaves.

In 2014, Brown University used artwork to spread awareness by creating a Slavery Memorial sculpture. The partially buried ball and chain sculpture sits outside of University Hall, the oldest building on campus which was built with slave labor. In 2017 Princeton University similarly unveiled a new sculpture at a historic slave auction site on campus. Impressions of Liberty (2017), created by African American artist Titus Kaphar attempts to bring visibility to the slaves that once lived at the university.

 

Reparations

One of the most concrete ways in which universities have addressed their ties to the slave trade is by providing reparations to the descendants of the enslaved. Georgetown University students recently created a fund for paying reparations to the descendants of the slaves that the university sold in 1838. The students established the fund by agreeing to tax themselves $27.20 per semester, in tribute to the 272 slaves who were sold. 

The Virginia Theology Seminary also announced in 2019 a $1.7 million reparation funds to be given to the descendents of slaves who worked at the seminary or lived in the community during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation. The Princeton Theological Seminary has similarly set aside $28 million dollars to be used in reparations.

 

Further Reading

“Slavery and the American University” by Alex Carp, New York Review of Books

 

“Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History” by Sven Beckert, Katherine Stevens, and the students of the Harvard and Slavery Research Seminar

 

Book: Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder (2013)

 

“Our Ancestors Were Sold to Save Georgetown. ‘$400,000 Is Not Going to Do It.” by DaVita Robinson, Valerie White and Maxine Crump, The New York Times

 

“Enslaved labor built these universities. Now they are starting to repay the debt” by Tracy Forson, USA Today

 

“A Complicated History: Slavery at Dartmouth” by Christian Cano, The Dartmouth