Slavery Goes to College, or Coming to Terms with a Shameful Past
I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to figure out how I could best state my feelings about the relationship between U.S. institutions of higher education and the institution of slavery.
When Brown University produced it’s detailed report on the role of slavery in the history of that institution, I applauded. Colleges have long struggled with the issue of full disclosure–of minority student numbers, of on-campus crime statistics, of salaries and other forms of compensation–and few topics have provoked more anxiety in the administrative halls of U.S. colleges and universities than the recent demands institutions speak openly about the role of slavery in their early growth and development.
A number of recent news reports have made note of the great silence with which other institutions have responded to Brown’s (eventual) candor on the subject of it’s relationship to the slave trade. Most schools that are old enough to have possible links to U.S. chattel slavery would probably prefer to leave such relationships unexcavated, and many folks in the academic community support this impetus to, in effect, let sleeping dogs lie.
I cannot overstate how strongly I disagree with that perspective. I believe that full disclosure is an absolutely necessity, especially at the present time, when Black people’s rightful place in higher education is being vigorously debate in both the academy and the media. At the same time that I call for full disclosure of institutions’ relationships to the so-called “peculiar institution of slavery,” however, I also discourage demonizing institutions for their past links to slavery. Many of the United States’ most prestigious colleges and universities have roots that extend deep into the antebellum period; and among those American institutions founded during the antebleeum period, there are few of any type (educational, financial, corporate, or otherwise) that are not in some way linked to slavery and the slave trade. For U.S. colleges and universities this might include the hiring and promotion of slaveholding faculty and/or administrators, the financing of the slave trade, or the kidnapping and transport of African peoples for the purpose of selling and enslaving them on American shores.
And yet a college’s roots in the slave trade cannot be ignored. I believe that the identification of the specific relationships of the various colleges and universities of the U.S. to slavery and the slave trade could form the basis of a new understanding of racism, racially- and ethnically-based considerations in the admission process, and the waning practice of affirmative action.
Whenever I get the opportunity–whenever I uncover any useful links, sources, or other information on the topic–I’m going to use this space to work towards a fuller understanding of the relationship between U.S. higher ed and American slavery. I want to do this in part to uncover the role of the exploitation of enslaved Black people in the growth and expansion of U.S. higher education. I am also interested in the exploring ways that both the antebellum trade in Black bodies and the use of free Black labor have helped to shape some of the very institutions that African Americans were excluded from attending, in many cases, well into the 20th century.
Insitutions should voluntarily establish scholarships and a policy of preferential admission for the direct descendants of those from whose labor and or sale they benefited. This privileged admission status would function something like the preferential treatment of legacy applicants (the children and grandchildren of alumni) and development applicants (those whose families have or are likely to make substantial donations to a given institution). Such families would be identified by name and, ideally, descents would be contacted early in their school careers and informed of the unique opportunity that their ancestors’ legacy had created for them.
Maybe this is what colleges fear. Maybe their reluctance to uncover and disclose any relationship to or involvement in U.S. slavery and the slave trade is based in a fear that the descendants of those whose sale or labor benefited the institution would demand compensation. Or maybe colleges fear damage to their reputations. There are, no doubt, some students who would not wish to attend a college that was deeply involved in the practice of slavery and/or the slave trade. Other students might prefer not to live in a dormitory named after an avowed klansman, pro-slavery advocate, plantation owner, or slave trader. Students deserve the right to make this decision, as do parents. They cannot, however, respond to something that they have not been allowed to know, nor can they–and this is the more likely scenario–explore what the slave legacy of the college or university in question means to them, acknowledge this aspect of the school’s legacy as one of many facets shaping the insitution, and join the college community, fully informed of the complex web of influences, actions, shameful transgressions, and transcendent moments that constitute it’s history.
Posted by Ajuan Mance