Following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others, 2020 marked a watershed moment for nationwide discussions on systemic racism. This was true, too, for higher education: this year has sharpened the focus on the ways that historical legacies and current practices reinforce racial hierarchies. As more universities and colleges continue to detangle the lasting effects of systemic racism on their institutions, there is still much to learn about how institutions have reckoned with their own institutional histories of slavery and racism.

This is the first blog post in a series in which I will discuss how institutions have uncovered and analyzed their historical connections with slavery and how historical projects have been used to inform practices in addressing institutional racism on campuses. This post describes some of the institutional projects focused on the legacies of slavery that emerged over the past twenty years, and the common themes and findings that have surfaced.

Institutional projects focused on uncovering the legacies of slavery

Since the early 2000s, an increasing number of institutions have begun historical inquiries on their own involvement with enslavement and bondage. One of the earliest projects established was Brown University’s Slavery and Justice project which garnered much attention and set a model for historical inquiries on institutional ties with slavery. Other institutions like the University of Alabama and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also initiated early efforts to pass resolutions that acknowledged their institutions’ involvement in exploiting the labor of enslaved peoples. When the University of Virginia began researching its historical connections, it also started the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium to share best practices on developing projects addressing institutional histories with slavery. Institutions within the USS consortium have some commonalities in how they began, implemented, and supported these types of projects. Below, I describe why these types of projects were started and how they were structured.

Institutions were often influenced by students, faculty, and critical moments when they established projects analyzing their relationship with slavery

There are varied reasons why institutions have undertaken projects examining their own histories of slavery and racism. Many have been influenced by national conversations or critical moments that have occurred on their campuses. For example, Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice emerged from debates at the time regarding reparations. In 2002, descendants of enslaved people filed lawsuits seeking reparations from banks and insurance companies like Aetna and JP Morgan Chase for their roles in supporting slave-owners through bank loans and life insurances. These cases brought national attention to the issue of slavery reparations which then led to the creation of Brown’s steering committee. Similarly, Washington and Lee University’s Commission on Institutional History and Community was commissioned in the aftermath of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Others were directly impacted by events and activities that were occurring on campus. For example, Georgetown University’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, & Reconciliation stemmed from the inauguration of a new residential community that replaced Mulledy Hall, which was named after President Thomas Mulledy who authorized the sale of 272 enslaved people owned by the Society of Jesus in Maryland. In other cases, as for James Madison University and The Citadel, historical projects grew out of prior working groups that were focused on increasing diversity and promoting inclusion on their campuses.

But, generally the main drivers of these projects have been faculty and students. For example, University of Mississippi’s Slavery Research Group, initially formed as a faculty reading group, developed into a formal working group after the members concluded that there was potential in exploring the relationship between slavery and the university. At Emory University, the faculty-led Transforming Community Project (TCP), which hosted community dialogues on race, was credited for pushing forward Emory’s formal statement of regret of the institutional ties to slavery through the college’s early history.

Other initiatives were led by students. For example, the Princeton & Slavery, Harvard & Slavery, Penn & Slavery projects emerged from undergraduate research seminars. These classes sought evidence on how the university leadership, faculty, and staff benefited from enslaved labor and how slavery shaped their campus culture and history. Students also influenced institutions through their activism. For example, Furman University’s institutional analysis project was started after a student published an editorial on the university’s slave-owning founders that pushed the administration to begin a public historical inquiry.

Steering Committees have been structured to include a wide representation of stakeholders

After developing initiatives studying institutional connections with slavery, steering committees are typically charged with 1) examining the institutional history of slavery; 2) providing recommendations on how to acknowledge the historical relationship with slavery; and 3) organizing activities for the campus community in order to engage with the questions raised by the findings of these projects. Some steering committees also created subcommittees to focus on different aspects of the inquiry. For example, Wake Forest University created subcommittees that were focused on researching the early history of the campus, scholarly engagement, faculty and student engagement, and how to enhance campus traditions to be more inclusive.

The steering committees for these initiatives tend to include a wide range of stakeholders. Senior leaders (including provosts and board members) help to provide direct leadership and action while faculty, students, library directors, and archivists can help drive the historical inquiry by researching archival and manuscript collections, campus publications, and newspapers. In addition, faculty and students were often responsible for studying best practices across institutions, surveying histories of buildings and monuments on campus, or soliciting feedback from other students and faculty on these topics. Administrative staff, including diversity and inclusion directors, were included as thought leaders and organizers for the steering committee.

Common findings and themes from historical projects analyzing slavery

Although these historical inquiries occurred in different parts of the country, several common findings and themes emerged: 1) many colleges and universities would have not have been founded without slavery; 2) the support of slavery was often a founding vision and influence; and 3) colleges and universities continued to reap benefits from enslaved labor beyond their founding.

The founding of many institutions was directly linked to the slave trade

One of the common findings of these historical inquiries is that the transatlantic slave trade was instrumental in the founding and early development of many American colleges and universities. For example, Brown’s Committee on Slavery and Justice reported that half of the vessels that boosted the North American Slave Trade were launched from Rhode Island. One particular vessel, named the Sally, was the first slave ship to depart directly from Providence and was launched by the Brown Brothers, who provided significant funding for the construction of the university. After the Sally, one of the brothers, John Brown, would continue to support other slaving endeavors even after Rhode Island had outlawed the slave trade. The university also continued to benefit from the slave trade as many of its founders and trustees gained wealth by participating in enslavement. In fact, the first university building on the campus was built using enslaved labor donated by patrons.

Other institutions like Columbia University also profited from the transatlantic slave trade. The founders of King’s College, which would later become Columbia, were major merchants whose wealth was directly linked to the West Indies Slave Trade. University leadership also had direct links to slavery–as noted in Columbia’s report, “of the ten men who served as presidents of King’s and Columbia between 1754 and the end of the Civil War, at least half owned slaves at one point in their lives.”

Other institutions also profited from the operations of plantations. Georgetown University’s founding was directly connected to the plantation proceeds from the sale of 272 enslaved humans, many of whom were forced into the cultivation of cotton and sugar in Louisiana. The proceeds from the sale were used to fund the construction of the university’s campus.

Support of slavery was a founding vision and influence for many institutions

Wealth built through the slave trade helped endow many institutions and provided funding for the physical construction of the colleges or universities. For institutions, support for slavery was even more deeply embedded and intertwined with the very purpose of the institution.

For example, Thomas Jefferson trusted that the University of Virginia would advance the idea of slavery. Jefferson believed that a “southern institution was necessary to protect the sons of the South from abolitionist teachings in the North.” The founder of The University of the South-Sewanee envisioned an institution “designed from the start to represent, protect, and promote the South’s civilization of bondage; and launched expressly for the slaveholding society of the South”. Reverend Richard Furman, who founded Furman University, viewed the university as a way to promote Baptist education in South Carolina, which at the time aligned faith with the belief that slavery was justified on moral and biblical grounds. Clemson University’s founding vision was influenced by John Calhoun, a slave owner who was one of the key national proponents of slavery and secession. The university was also built upon his former plantation.

The founding visions and influences on the institutions and students in support of slavery helped continue the legacy of slavery since many of the alumni would later become politicians, business leaders, and intellectuals that would become leading voices in the pro-slavery movement and major proponents for the Confederacy.

Institutions continued to exploit the labor of enslaved people beyond their founding

The exploitation of enslaved people, carried on by faculty, administrators, and students, continued well beyond the founding of the institution. For example, the University of Georgia (UGA) was maintained by enslaved people who lived in Athens and accounted for more than half of the population. UGA’s board of trustees passed yearly budgets that included the hire of enslaved laborers. Since the establishment of the university, it relied on uncompensated labor for its operations and daily college life. As noted in the university’s report, enslaved people were ordered to “wait on the students, clean their shoes and boots, to make their fires, and to clean the college buildings.”

In addition, since Virginia’s economy relied on enslaved labor, students from the University of Virginia were largely from slave-owning families. Years after the construction, the university’s operations were mostly manned by enslaved people. Faculty could bring enslaved people to live with them on campus, while students were attended by people enslaved by independent hotels or boarding houses. The population of enslaved people residing with faculty, staff, and hotel keepers fluctuated from 143 people in 1830 to about 92 in 1850.

Conclusion and future activities

These investigations were among the first steps many of these institutions took to acknowledge their institutional relationships with slavery. Of course, acknowledgement of the historical wrong is only the first step. In the next blog post, I will analyze the strategies or practices that universities have used for accountability and reconciliation following the findings from their historical projects. And in a subsequent post, I’ll draw out the lessons of these backward-looking efforts for current efforts to address ongoing institutional racism.