Research and Reconciliation: Some Universities Work to Ensure an Inclusive Future by Acknowledging Their Inequitable Pasts

By  - 

In recent years, some colleges and universities have set out on the long path of addressing their historic ties to systems rooted in white supremacy, including slavery, the Confederacy, and hate groups. Against the backdrop of a resurgence in white nationalism, this work has only grown in urgency and significance. At the same time, many institutions have deepened their commitment to atoning for their past by working to build a more inclusive future. 

[Above: A rendering of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on UVA’s campus in Charlottesville, Va., which is expected to be completed in 2019 (photo by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, LLP)]

University of Virginia

The University of Virginia’s (UVA) institutional narrative has been shaped by the forces of systemic oppression. Founded in Charlottesville in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson — who played a fundamental role in shaping the ideals of American democracy despite owning 600 slaves over the course of his lifetime — the campus and surrounding community were selected by white supremacists for the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. But despite its volatile history, UVA has established itself as an exemplar in restorative justice due to its large-scale efforts to uncover and reconcile its ties to slavery. 

In April 2013, then-President Teresa A. Sullivan formed the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (PCSU) to “provide advice and recommendations on the commemoration of UVA’s historical relationship with slavery,” says Marcus Martin, MD, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at UVA. 

To lead this massive undertaking, UVA created a large and diverse team. With 26 members, PCSU is made up of faculty in anthropology, history, and law; UVA archivists, architects, and student researchers; experts from local historic sites, including Jefferson’s estate; and Martin and other administrators. Recognizing the importance of this project to the student body as well as the community at large, PCSU spent five years scouring UVA records and archives, meeting with stakeholders, and brainstorming ways to atone for the university’s past. 

The commission’s official report, released in July 2018, is the culmination of this work. It garnered national attention for its uncovering of hard truths — namely, that Jefferson founded UVA to be an institution with “slavery at its very core,” based on his belief that “a southern institution was necessary to protect the sons of the South from abolitionist teachings in the North.” Acknowledging this historical reality, UVA is working hard to redirect its institutional narrative as one of inclusion of African Americans. The university decided the best way to begin was by first recognizing those it once enslaved. 

PCSU concluded that UVA had rented or owned at least 5,000 men, women, and children before emancipation in 1865. A meticulous search of university records uncovered the names of nearly 1,000 of these individuals, which the university intends to have etched into a circular stone wall to form the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. Known as the Freedom Ring, it is scheduled to open in 2019.

“When you look around the grounds of universities built by the enslaved, particularly in the South, nowhere do you actually see the names of the people who built these institutions; [they] have always been in the background,” says Martin. Located in one of the busiest areas of UVA’s campus, the memorial will be a visible reminder for students and the public that “the enslaved were here — they worked the gardens, prepared the food, provided childcare, cleaned the rooms,” Martin adds.   

Other efforts by UVA to address its past include a walking tour of historically significant sites on campus connected to the university’s history of slavery; the creation of a short documentary about the commission’s research, titled Unearthed and Understood; and the development of courses for UVA students and learning experiences for local high school youth about slavery and its long-lasting effects on the region.

Another outcome of PCSU’s report was the creation of the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium. Forty-two colleges and universities in the U.S., Canada, and Europe have joined USS since its founding in 2015, enabling them to exchange ideas, share best practices, and plan joint efforts for achieving restorative justice on a large scale. 

UVA has also renamed several campus buildings after enslaved persons who played a central role in its history and founding. Martin believes that honoring these individuals is important because it humanizes the story of slavery as well as shapes an inclusive institutional narrative — one that, he says, no longer ignores black history. “[The commission’s] report brings [UVA’s history] to light so that the institution can move forward with further opportunities for atonement and repair,” he says.

Georgetown University

One of the first institutions to join USS was Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.; its Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation project has been one of the most publicized examples of a prominent institution’s coming to terms with its unethical past. Part of this effort has involved publishing the names of 272 enslaved persons who were sold en masse in 1838 by the Jesuits of the Maryland Providence for the university’s financial benefit. Widespread media attention, coupled with genealogy research by nonprofit organizations, has enabled thousands of descendants of these individuals — who originally lived and worked on plantations owned by the Jesuits — to be identified.

“This [project] was an interesting case because, unlike some other universities, we weren’t so much discovering our history as shining a light on it,” says Georgetown Vice President and Chief of Staff Joe Ferrara, PhD. The past practice of Jesuit slaveholding as well as the sale of the “GU272” — as this group of slaves is commonly referred to — was well-known among historians and those familiar with the university’s history, he says. Until now, however, Georgetown had never publicized this information or the details of the 1838 sale.

The original aim of the Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation project was not solely to identify descendants of this group but to “communicate this history [of slavery] in new and vivid ways to the members of the university community and the broader public,” says Adam Rothman, PhD, a GU history professor who served on the project’s working group. To accomplish this, the university created the Georgetown Slavery Archive website, which features reports and letters regarding everyday life on the Jesuit-owned plantations that financially supported the university. The records discuss the sometimes violent punishments, the thwarted escape attempts, and the grief-stricken reactions of members of the GU272 who learned they had been sold. 

The site also includes the 1838 bill of sale, which lists the names of those sold. This unearthing prompted The New York Times, researchers such as the alumni-created Georgetown Memory Project, and amateur genealogists to track down and interview descendants of these former slaves.

“As the descendant community began to emerge, it seemed natural as well as urgent that we engage with them,” says Ferrara, who has traveled with Georgetown President John DeGioia to visit descendants across the U.S. “The fundamental purpose of these meetings was to establish a relationship and … talk about some of the things we thought might be appropriate to try to do as we move forward to achieve racial healing and justice.” 

Many of the descendants have formed their own associations that work with Georgetown in its atonement efforts. For example, the university — in collaboration with these individuals and the Catholic church — held a special liturgy in which the campus and its Jesuit order formally apologized for its history of slavery generally and the 1838 sale specifically. The event coincided with the renaming of a campus building after the first person listed on the bill of sale. It was previously named for the Georgetown president who was the “chief architect of the massive sale of enslaved people in 1838,” says Rothman. 

The college now offers preferential admissions for descendants. While Ferrara stresses that this does not guarantee acceptance, it does mean that any applicant who can trace their ancestry to the GU272 will be treated “the same way we treat the sons or daughters of people who have a special relationship with the university, like faculty members,” he says. Several descendants have enrolled at Georgetown since preferential admissions began in fall 2016. 

Going forward, Ferrara says the university plans to work “in close consultation” with descendants on designing memorials for their ancestors as well as additional projects. “All of these things — the renaming of buildings, the [liturgy], the Georgetown Slavery Archive — are just first steps. We are looking at this as a very long-term process,” he says. 

University of Wisconsin–Madison

Recently, several northern institutions have been compelled to examine their own historic ties to white supremacist establishments. In fall 2017, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW Madison) Rebecca Blank commissioned a study group to investigate two campus groups that bore the name of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) during the early 20th century — a decision prompted by the “Unite the Right” rally. 

Patrick Sims
Patrick Sims

“I think given what was happening across the country and at other major institutions, to sit so idly by knowing that a history [of the KKK] existed [on campus] and not engage would have been highly problematic for Chancellor Blank and the university community,” says Patrick Sims, deputy vice chancellor, vice provost, and chief diversity officer at the college. 

The Memorial Union at UW-Madison
The Memorial Union at UW-Madison

UW Madison researchers determined that neither campus organization had official ties to the KKK. Studying the history of the second group, however, had been especially puzzling, Sims says, as researchers could not determine why its members chose the KKK moniker. Even more troubling for the university was the fact that two of its members had gone on to become prominent alumni who had spaces in the UW Madison student union named in their honor. 

Many students and employees demanded the college immediately rename these places. Others argued that such an action was unfairly maligning these individuals’ legacies, as each was known for advocating against segregation in their respective professions. The university ultimately decided to apply guidelines established by Yale University in 2016 for renaming campus spaces that supposedly venerate white supremacist leaders or ideologies. This protocol prioritizes the contextualization of unpleasant racist histories rather than erasing them, says Sims, which is why UW Madison decided that both men deserved recognition on campus, just not in spaces designed for student programming. 

Instead, each man’s life and the history of the KKK at UW Madison and in the surrounding community will be presented in an educational format — most likely through interactive kiosks, according to Sims. In addition, the university has pledged to bolster its support for racial justice in higher education, including finding new ways to educate the campus on the history of racial and ethnic exclusion at UW Madison. 

Had the university immediately removed each man’s name from the student union instead of digging deeper, Sims says the campus community “would have missed the opportunity to have the larger conversation. We wouldn’t have been able to address the culture of the time period that enabled this [KKK] organization to exist.”

University of Mississippi

Facilitating conversations about the cultural context of white supremacy is an educational obligation of colleges and universities, says John R. Neff, PhD, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi (UM). As an institution with a notoriously racist past — including being the site of one of higher education’s most bitter desegregation battles — UM decided in 2014 to task Neff and other UM historians with contextualizing campus spaces that venerated white supremacist leaders or ideals. 

Some members of both the campus and local community objected to the project under the misguided belief that it would entail erasing parts of UM’s past, Neff says. “I think some of the opposition was in fear of what [information] we would produce or that we would tear down names or even buildings,” he says. “There was a lot of misunderstanding regarding what we were trying to do, which is to be honest with our history, not denigrate or delete it.” 

Based on the research team’s suggestions and Yale University’s guidelines, UM decided to contextualize several structures and monuments — including a Confederate statue and buildings named for slaveholders — by installing plaques that explain their historic ties to white supremacy.

UM did decide, however, to rename one campus building identified by the committee as being connected to white supremacist ideology, rather than simply adding context. Vardaman Hall was named after former Mississippi governor James K. Vardaman, who advocated for segregation and even violence against African Americans. Preserving history, Neff says, does not mean continuing to honor such an individual. The university has yet to decide upon a new name for the historic hall.  

Like Georgetown and UVA, UM plans to begin addressing its historical ties to slavery as well and is currently looking at ways to raise awareness of the lives of women who were enslaved there. 

“To not acknowledge our past is to lie about it, and to erase the unpleasant moments — to have no memory of them on campus — is extraordinarily dishonest,” Neff says. “The preservation of the past, while being contextualized, acknowledges that no one institution has gotten through [history] without blame.”

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our November 2018 issue.