EXCERPT: Slavery and the University

Harris_Slavery and the UniversityIn honor of Black History Month, we are posting an excerpt from the introduction of Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies edited by Leslie M. Harris, James T. Campbell, and Alfred L. Brophy. This is the first collection of scholarly essays devoted solely to the histories and legacies of this subject on North American campuses and in their Atlantic contexts.

Though the roots of Slavery and the University stem from a 2011 conference at Emory University, the collection extends outward to incorporate recent findings at Princeton University, Harvard University, Oberlin College, and the University of Alabama. As more and more institutions of higher learning try to come to terms with their legacies related to slavery, the case studies in this collection offer valuable insight as to how they can take responsibility for that legacy while also fulfilling the core function of their institution: educating students.

For more than a century now, students walking across McCorkle Place, the main quadrangle at the University of North Carolina, have passed in the shadow of Silent Sam, standing sentinel atop a tall granite pedestal. The statue, erected in 1913 with funding from the United Daughters of the Confederacy, honors soldiers who fought for southern independence, a group that included some 40 percent of UNC’s 1860 student body. As several historians have shown, Silent Sam and the countless other “common soldier” monuments erected on campuses and courthouse lawns in the first decades of the twentieth century marked the climax of a long struggle over how the American Civil War would be remembered and represented, a struggle waged not on the battlefield but in school pageants and political campaigns, history textbooks and Hollywood films. In the version that prevailed—the version that still prevails in some quarters today—disunion became a defense of constitutional principle and southern independence a romantic “Lost Cause,” while the war itself became a kind of unifying trial, the crucible of a truly united United States. Slavery, if it featured at all in such accounts, appeared only as an incident, an unfortunate but essentially benign institution for governing relations between two differently endowed races; while the years of Reconstruction, during which African Americans briefly exercised civil and political rights, became “the Tragic Era,” a baleful age of corruption and racial fanaticism mercifully cut short by southern “Redemption.”

Sam recently acquired new company on the quad. In 2005 the University of North Carolina unveiled the Unsung Founders Memorial in honor of the “people of color, bound and free, who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.” Funded by a gift from the graduating class of 2002, the new memorial features a polished black granite tabletop upheld by the outstretched arms of hundreds of bronze figurines. “What we do today will not rectify what our ancestors did in the past,” declared James Moeser, UNC chancellor, in his speech at the dedication ceremony, “but this memorial, I believe, attests to our commitment to shed light on the darker corners of our history.” In keeping with that sentiment, the university library used the occasion to unveil a major exhibition, Slavery and the Making of the University, sharing documents and photographs from its collections to illuminate the university’s relationship to slavery.

Though just a stone’s throw from one another, the two memorials conjure radically different pasts, a fact vividly expressed at their respective dedications. The tone of contrition and sober self-reflection at the 2005 ceremony was conspicuously absent at Sam’s dedication in 1913. The keynote speech on that occasion, delivered by Julian Shakespeare Carr, a local tobacco magnate, Confederate veteran, and UNC alumnus, was a paean to the Lost Cause—to the honor and devotion of southern soldiers and the “grand principle of local self government and State sovereignty” for which they fought. Carr paid particular homage to UNC’s student legions, whose “courage and steadfastness,” first in the war and later in the violent struggle against Reconstruction, had “saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race in the South.” He illustrated the point with a personal anecdote, recounting how, on his return to campus after Appomattox, he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds” after she “publicly insulted and maligned a southern lady.”

The change in official memory at the University of North Carolina offers just one example of a process playing out in recent years at American universities, a growing number of which have chosen (or in a few cases been compelled) to confront their historical ties to slavery. In early 2002 a group of graduate students at Yale, responding to a recent university history portraying Yale as a citadel of abolitionism, published an independent report exposing some of the seamier aspects of the institution’s racial history. Later that same year, Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University and the first African American to head an Ivy League institution, appointed an official university committee to investigate and publicly disclose Brown’s historical entanglement with slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. In 2004 faculty members at the University of Alabama adopted a formal resolution of apology for their forebears’ role in perpetuating and promoting slavery; the apology was accompanied by a commitment to raise markers on the previously unmarked graves of slaves buried on the campus. In 2005 Emory University launched the Transforming Community Project, a five-year “process of discovery and dialogue about Emory’s racial history.” The Emory initiative was doubly significant, since it was a dispute over the ownership of an enslaved woman by the president of the university’s board of trustees that cleaved the Methodist Church into northern and southern wings, a watershed moment in the nation’s descent into disunion and war.

Other institutions have followed suit. In 2009 William and Mary, the nation’s second-oldest college, launched The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation, named for an enslaved man once owned by the school. Among the outcomes of the project was a formal institutional apology, issued by the university’s board of visitors in 2018. The University of Virginia appointed the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University in 2013 and a second commission, the University in the Age of Segregation, in 2018. In 2017 Princeton University hosted an international conference to share the fruits of its five-year Princeton and Slavery Project, a conference that included a keynote address by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. While stopping short of official inquiries, several other prominent universities, including Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, and the University of Maryland, have sponsored exhibitions, seminars, conferences, and research projects illuminating their ties to slavery.

The recent raft of campus investigations and disclosures has attracted considerable public interest. It has also spawned fresh historical research. Scholars, some working under the auspices of university committees and others independently, have documented the ways in which campuses became seedbeds for racial thought. They have traced the shifting attitudes of students and faculty toward slavery and assessed the contribution of slave-generated wealth in establishing and endowing some of the nation’s most revered institutions. Sources long gathering dust in university archives—commencement addresses, records of student debating societies, old textbooks, and curricula—have been unearthed and examined. Inevitably, excavations of the racial past have invited reflection about the racial present—about the current state of campus race relations, as well as the responsibilities of elite universities to the communities of color around them, communities that in many cases continue to serve as reservoirs of manual labor, just as they did in the era of slavery. Several universities, following the lead of the University of North Carolina, have erected memorials and historical markers to recognize their previously unacknowledged debts to the enslaved. Others have engaged the question in reverse, debating whether to remove existing monuments or to rename buildings named in honor of slaveholders and secessionists.

Though seemingly local and specific, the debates have spilled beyond the campus gates, provoking broad public interest and, in some cases, igniting fierce controversy. Historians have long been aware that Georgetown University staved off financial ruin in the 1830s by selling 272 enslaved men, women, and children to sugar plantations in southern Louisiana, but when an alumnus and amateur genealogist managed to track down some of their descendants, still living in Louisiana, the sale became front-page national news. The episode touched off a roiling debate not only about appropriate forms of commemoration but also about whether and how the university should compensate the descendants, a debate that continues to this day. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in 2017 prompted an incursion onto the campus of the University of Virginia by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. The ensuing melee left one woman dead.

What are we to make of all this? What have recent revelations about universities and slavery taught us about our nation’s history and about the history of American higher education in particular? Equally important, what do they tell us about our own time? Why has the relationship between slavery and universities—a relationship hiding in plain sight for the better part of two centuries—become such a pressing concern today? Why are some seemingly so threatened by such investigations? What do these forays into difficult pasts actually accomplish? Do they portend a new, more inclusive era in our nation, or are they (as some critics have alleged) just the latest manifestation of “political correctness” on American campuses—contrition chic,” as some have called it? The essays in this book, which examine some of the recent university explorations of slavery and its legacies, suggest a few answers to these questions.

Check out Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies to explore possible answers and further investigate the history of racial diversity along with current practices of higher education. 

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