Accountability and Reconciliation: Higher Ed’s Fraught History of Slavery
The aftermath of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others has led many colleges and universities to consider how the legacies of slavery and systemic racism have shaped and impacted their institutions. As more institutions consider the lasting effects of slavery, there are lessons and strategies that could be learned from institutions that began these historical inquiries of slavery and racism before 2020. In a previous blog, I described the origins, processes, and findings of these efforts. In this blog post, I will discuss some common strategies and practices that emerged from these historical inquiries to promote accountability and reconciliation for institutional connections with slavery.
Institutions have pursued three main strategies:1) committing to a deeper understanding of the institution’s role in slavery; 2) constructing symbolic messaging regarding the institution’s history with slavery; and 3) seeking justice for past injuries.
Committing to a deeper understanding of the institution’s role in slavery
Many institutions have focused on gaining a deeper comprehension of their connection with slavery and how to address the lingering signs of slavery on their campuses. In particular, many institutions have committed to supporting long-term scholarly research on the subject. For example, following the findings from Brown University’s Slavery and Justice project, the university established the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, which is organized around research clusters, projects, seminars, and public initiatives that present scholarly works. The research clusters are led by faculty fellows who examine the broad legacies of slavery through different scholarly lenses; in the past academic year, clusters have focused on topics of race, colonialism, capitalism, and mass incarceration.
Institutions also continue to establish interdisciplinary projects that address the legacy of slavery through shorter-term student and faculty research, seminars, or community-learning opportunities. For example, Columbia University established digital exhibits, where faculty and students use digital methods to explore the relationship between slavery and the university. Some of the student-led projects have also included data visualizations on university stakeholders and the number of enslaved people that they exploited. Under Wake Forest University’s Slavery, Race and Memory project, faculty published To Stand With and For Humanity, an essay collection that examines the history and legacy of slavery at the institution that also includes an apology on behalf of the university for benefiting from slavery. The Race and Racism at the University of Richmond project is developing a publically accessible digital archive of materials related to race and racism and developing courses that develop content for the archive. The College of William and Mary established the Lemon Project, which supports research led by faculty and students focused on the experiences of African Americans at William and Mary. To date, the project has developed seven individual courses focused on the legacy and complexities of institutional slavery.
Constructing symbolic messaging regarding the institution’s history with slavery
Many institutions have also embraced symbolic messaging and memorialization as a way to acknowledge the institution’s role in supporting and benefitting from slavery. This includes issuing formal apologies from senior leaders. In one early example, Emory University released a formal statement of regret approved by its board of trustees: “Emory [acknowledges its entwinement with the institution of slavery]…and the University’s decades of delay in acknowledging slavery’s harmful legacy. As Emory University looks forward, it seeks the wisdom always to discern what is right and the courage to abide by its mission of using knowledge to serve humanity.” Georgetown University’s president also formally apologized for the role of the university in trading 272 enslaved people, stating “we need to address, in our time, the consequences of the original evil of slavery, which were never ameliorated in any previous time” and noted that higher education needs to play a role in repairing these historical injuries.
Colleges and universities have also focused on creating, renaming, or removing monuments on campus with connections to slavery and white supremacist ideologies. For example, following a recommendation from Furman University’s historical analysis project, its board of trustees approved resolutions to commemorate Joseph Vaugh, Furman’s first African-American student, while also removing the name of the university’s first president, James Furman (who was a major slavery proponent) from a campus building. Others like Rutgers University, University of South Carolina, and University of Virginia have also renamed buildings commemorating former enslaved people with ties to the universities. Yale University also renamed Calhoun College (named after John Calhoun, a prominent defender of slavery), following the advice from their Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, which outlined guiding principles of considering renaming. Some of the main principles included whether “a principal legacy of the namesake fundamentally [is] at odds with the mission of the university” or whether a namesake “play a substantial role in forming community at the university”.
Other institutions have memorialized the history of slavery at their institutions through more permanent exhibitions. For example, following the findings of the university’s slavery project, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill created a large online exhibition titled Slavery and the Making of the University, which documents the contributions of enslaved people to the university. The University of Mississippi’s Slavery research group hosts a website dedicated to identifying former enslaved workers and commemorating their existence though biographies. The University of the South- Sewanee followed its historical analysis project findings by organizing events and lectures around the topics of the slave trade, the confederacy, and reparations. Washington and Lee University also has a dedicated exhibition that explores the role of African Americans in the history of the University. George Mason University maintains an exhibition examining the 18th-century histories of African Americans living on the Gunston Hall Plantation, near the campus. Sweet Briar College also maintains an exhibition that notes the history of the college, which was built on a plantation, while also honoring the names of enslaved individuals whose labor was exploited by the university’s founder.
Seeking justice for past injuries
While many institutions have committed to studying and addressing the symbols of their connection with slavery, only a few have moved beyond that to providing reparations and seeking justice. Georgetown University and two theological seminaries have announced limited financial commitments to descendants of enslaved people who were sold or exploited for the benefit of the institutions. Georgetown announced that it would raise about $400,000 per year for the descendants of the enslaved people sold by the university. The institution also announced that descendants of the enslaved people owned by the Maryland Province of Jesuits would receive preferential admission consideration; however, the institution also noted that being a descendant is not a determinative factor for admissions.
In contrast to Georgetown’s approach, which is limited to the small number of living descendants connected to their historical engagement in slavery, the Virginia Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary took a broader-based view on how to fund reparations for past wrongs. The Virginia Theological Seminary announced a $1.7 million reparations fund, which would be used in supporting African American clergy, programs promoting inclusion, and assistance to any descendants of slaves who worked there. The Princeton Theological Seminary also announced a $27.6 million endowment fund after a historical inquiry uncovered that some founders exploited slave labor. The endowment set aside will be used to fund a set of initiatives including scholarships, curricular reforms, and community outreach.
As noted above, there are only a few cases where financial reparations have been proposed after uncovering that the institution had benefited from slavery. It is likely that because the historical focus has been on institutional history before the 19th century, that there is a limited purview on how the original sin of slavery has shaped institutions well beyond the 19th century and how it has affected Black students and communities. Because of the disconnection, many of the historical inquiries have not focused on how the present institution could remedy past injuries beyond symbolic ways.
However, the national conversations on systemic racism following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, has opened a space to discuss how slavery has shaped American society and institutions beyond the 19th century, from Black codes and Jim Crow laws, to redlining and the current reckoning with mass incarceration. Since these conversations are pushing forward a more holistic view on how slavery has shaped the present, it could affect how institutions move beyond discussions of slavery as a static moment instead of a continuous history.
In the next blog post, I will discuss new developments at institutions in the aftermath of the murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others and whether these efforts build on past projects seeking to address institutional histories of slavery.