Colleges seek to confront legacy of racism

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Brown University in Providence, R.I., became the first college to acknowledge it links to slavery in 2003. In 2011, Emory University’s trustees acknowledged connections to slavery and expressed regret for “this undeniable wrong.” They also expressed regret for decades of delay in acknowledging slavery’s harmful legacy. Emory was founded in 1836 by Methodists in the town of Oxford, Georgia.

Just this year, the University of Georgia became embroiled in controversy when plans were unveiled to reinter the remains of what are believed to be former slaves unearthed during a building expansion on campus near the Old Athens Cemetery. Some black leaders and faculty in the college town disagreed with the university’s decision to move the graves and accused white school officials of not recognizing the past wrongs.

A group of two dozen colleges and universities calling itself Universities Studying Slavery are working together to study the history of slavery in higher education and the legacy of racism on campuses. The group includes the University of Virginia, University of South Carolina, Clemson University and Georgetown University.

Georgetown last September announced plans to reconcile with its slave history, including trying to atone for the sale of 272 slaves in 1838 that helped keep the struggling Catholic school from closing. In April, nearly 200 decedents of those slaves visited the Washington, D.C., campus for a ceremony recognizing the legacy.

“Part of the conflict that we’re having on campuses is a generation of students who are making us be honest about the the legacies of racism and racial inequality that actually helped to form our universities,” said Craig Steven Wilder, an MIT historian who has written a book about how slavery was embedded in shaping America’s oldest, most elite colleges.

Wilder said fewer schools have examined their ties to recent racism and the Klan.

“I think it gets a little too close to home,” he said. “If the subject of slavery on campuses is uncomfortable, imagine the discomfort that we have with the heavy presence, the constant presence of racist traditions well into the 20th century when many of us actually began our college and professional school careers.”