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Universities Are Slow To Reveal Links To Slavery

When Brown University released its landmark report on the institution’s connections to slavery in the fall of 2006, academics and reparations advocates across the country praised the institution, but few universities have followed Brown’s lead in examining their own history with slavery more than one year later.

The culmination of nearly three years of research by the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, a group appointed by President Ruth Simmons, the report outlines Brown’s ties to slavery and the history of the reparations movement in America and examines models for restorative justice.

“With the report, Brown has really gotten this debate going and it’s spilling out, splattering on the canvas and all,” Alfred Brophy, a professor of law at the University of Alabama and a reparations scholar, told Diverse. “But this will not be a one-year process. This sort of discussion moves at an academic pace. People chew on the ideas. They debate them.

“I really think we’re at the tipping point, where you’re going to see other institutions engage in this,” says Brophy, who, along with other Alabama faculty, successfully advocated for an institutional apology to slavery in 2004. “It’s reasonable to think that next year will bring some more serious investigations.”

Indeed, several universities are in the beginning stages of exploring their histories with slavery, but it remains to be seen how administrators will back such responses.

Dr. Terry Meyers, a professor of English at the College of William and Mary, is examining the college’s connection to slavery in an effort he hopes will encourage the school to officially reckon with its complicated past.

“In the three major histories of William and Mary, the slave trade is simply erased – and not mentioned,” Meyers says. “It’s a sad and inhuman part of our past. Right from the beginning William and Mary was funded from the tax from tobacco, being a Virginia institution … And the college and president obviously owned slaves right from the get go.”

Meyers intends to present to the college’s faculty assembly a proposal to explore its history with slavery by the semester’s end, and he says such an official examination could conceivably begin next spring. Meyers adds that such a project could be meaningful only if it is truly exhaustive. And, indeed, when some institutions issue less in-depth apologies for their histories with slavery, scholars often question their sincerity.

“UVa. [University of Virginia] issued a quick apology, and, unlike Brown, they didn’t do it right,” Brophy says. He adds that because UVa.’s apology wasn’t backed up by significant scholarship, it came across as disingenuous.

“It certainly sounds like William and Mary is getting some stuff going,” Brophy says. “And very soon we’re going to see Harvard and Yale having to engage with this stuff.”

Harvard and other institutions in northern states are often considered less directly implicated in the slave trade than their southern counterparts. But in Harvard’s case, specific buildings were constructed on the university’s campus with profits from industries that used slave labor.

“Money did come from wealthy graduates who did own plantations down in the Caribbean, and you could say that the money came from the slave trade,” says Andrew Schlesinger, a graduate of Harvard College and the author of Veritas: Harvard College and the American Experience. In particular, Elmwood House, which has served as the residence of Harvard’s president since 1971, was built with such funds.

Should Harvard officially examine its connections to slavery, Schlesinger says Harvard’s current president, Dr. Drew Faust, who is also a well-regarded historian of the antebellum South, “will be pretty hip to this issue.”

Yale was forced to reckon with its past in a very high-profile examination of its history with slavery, though not officially sanctioned by the university. A 2001 report authored by three Yale graduate students — in the midst of a union dispute with the university — shed light on Yale’s past.

“The report was a very useful and important catalyst for continued discussion and research since it came out,” says Dr. Robert Forbes, an assistant professor of history and American studies at the University of Connecticut and formerly the associate director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University.

The report from the students, who were not trained historians, was not intended to be a historical publication, and it was actually funded by the Yale unions. Still, it made a major impact.

 ”The stories and documents brought to light in the report were largely absent from the history of slavery and the history of the university at the time,” J.J. Fueser, one of the report’s authors, wrote in an e-mail. “There is no question in my mind that Yale’s unions have made the university a more equitable, diverse and self-aware institution.”

Yale administration responded in a “reactive matter,” Forbes says. “It caused great alarm among administrators. And there was an impulse to deny or ignore.” Forbes says universities could look to Brown’s report on how to officially explore their histories with slavery and other complicated histories.

“What has happened at Brown is really sort of a model about how institutions could and should address this issue and other issues, including more contemporary ones,” he says.

–Jonathan Sidhu

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