CNN is reporting that U.S. colleges are coming to terms with their slave-owning pasts. In the article, Debra Goldschmidt cites the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., which held an all-day symposium about slavery and reconciliation last March. In 2009 the school acknowledged that it “owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War.”
In response it created the Lemon Project, named after a college-owned slave, to understand the role of race at the university. Kimberely Phillips, an associate professor of history and American studies and Lemon Project co-chairwoman, said it’s not just about slavery “but about the lingering past with segregation.”
On that spring Saturday, students, faculty and Williamsburg residents gathered to discuss research into the history of slavery at the school and how to move forward.
It’s a conversation taking place on campuses around the country as they, too, discover and come to terms with their past ties to slavery. It’s a history shared by Brown University in Providence, R.I.; Emory University in Atlanta; and Harvard University, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. All admit they benefited from their relationships with slavery.
Some, like Emory, were physically built by the manual labor of slaves. Early university presidents and leaders at Harvard were slave owners. Still other schools were built with money made from the slave trade.
Historian said that universities are typically focused on the present, and a history tied to slavery is seen as an embarrassment. Only within the last decade have historians pieced together this past, which some institutions had previously ignored or denied.
“Universities like to represent their abolitionist, anti-slave history and not talk about their connection to slavery [because] universities became battlegrounds for people opposed to slavery versus people in favor of it,” said anthropologist Mark Auslander, who teaches history at Brandeis University.
In 2003, Brown University became one of the first colleges to acknowledge its history with slavery. University President Ruth Simmons, the first African American to lead an Ivy League school, appointed a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to investigate ties between the New England slave trade and the university.
We’re glad that colleges and universities are openly exploring their relationship to slavery. It makes sense from a historical, research, cultural and resource perspective. While this work is long overdue, the timing of the studies will offer an interesting counterpoint to the celebration of the Confederacy, which will be nonstop for the next few years.