On Nov.14, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia announced the university will rename two buildings on campus named for two 19th-century Georgetown University presidents: Thomas F. Mulledy, who in 1838 arranged the sale of 272 slaves from Jesuit-owned Maryland plantations and used the profit to pay Georgetown’s construction debts, and William McSherry, who also sold other Jesuit-owned slaves and was Mulledy’s adviser. The sale ignored the objections of some Jesuit leaders who believed using the money to pay off debt was immoral and their demands that families be kept together.
Georgetown’s action followed a student sit-in outside DeGioia’s office, but it was part of a longer ongoing process examining the university’s historical connections to slavery. The renaming was one step recommended by the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation established by the president this school year. Recently student protesters at Yale University repeated calls to rename its Calhoun College honoring slave-owning Vice President and South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun, already a subject of campus wide discussion. For years the college featured a stained-glass window depicting Calhoun with a chained Black slave kneeling in front of him. After complaints, the slave’s image was removed, but Calhoun’s remains, as does his shameful legacy that haunts our nation still. Georgetown and Yale are among the growing number of colleges and universities struggling to come to terms with their historical connections to slave owners, slave labor and slave profits and the scars they leave on campuses and our nation today. What values do we want to hold up for our young as worthy of honor and emulation?
Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, was the first Ivy League university to move forward with a large-scale investigation of its history under the leadership of former President Ruth Simmons. In 2003 she appointed a Committee on Slavery and Justice to learn more about Brown’s past ties to slavery and wealthy benefactors involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Brown family included slave owners and slave traders as well as at least two members who became active abolitionists. The committee learned 30 members of Brown’s governing board owned or captained slave ships and slave labor was used for some of the school’s construction.
Brown is far from alone. In his groundbreaking 2013 book, “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar Craig Steven Wilder documented many of these connections. In the book’s prologue he says: “In short, American colleges were not innocent or passive beneficiaries of conquest and colonial slavery . . . The academy never stood apart from American slavery — in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”
The nation’s oldest colleges depended on direct and indirect wealth from slavery and the slave trade. Slaves helped build many university buildings including some at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. Students sometimes brought slaves to college to serve them, as George Washington’s stepson did when he attended King’s College in New York City, now Columbia University. Many university founders and early presidents owned personal slaves including Dartmouth, Harvard, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and more, and some colleges owned slaves. William and Mary, one of the slave -owning colleges, produced one of the most awful stories Wilder shares — that of founding trustee the Rev. Samuel Gray, who “murdered an enslaved child for running away”: “Rev. Gray struck the boy on the head, drawing blood, and then put a hot iron to the child’s flesh. The minister had the boy tied to a tree, and then ordered another slave to whip him. The boy later died. Gray argued that ‘such accidents’ were inevitable, a position that seems to have succeeded, as a court declined to convict him.”
Slave corpses were used in a number of the colleges’ medical and scientific experiments. In one of Wilder’s examples, Dartmouth College founder Eleazar Wheelock’s personal doctor arranged for a slave’s skeleton to be wired up for study and his skin tanned at the college shop and made into a cover for his instrument case. Ongoing university “research” throughout the nineteenth century bolstered many of the race-based claims used to support slavery.
Across our country this ugly and profoundly morally defective past is finally being brought into the light. Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice said: “We cannot change the past. But an institution can hold itself accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges.” More universities and institutions must follow Brown’s example and engage in a thoughtful process of truth telling of their own and America’s history in order to lift the indefensible blot of slavery on America’s dream which plagues us still. College students, faculty, and administrators seeking an honest historical accounting on their campuses are to be applauded. Only the truth will make us free and move us forward together.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind mission is to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information, go to www.childrensdefense.org.