Acknowledging Ties to Historical Racism, Colleges Make Changes

Acknowledging Ties to Historical Racism, Colleges Make Changes

July 15, 2021

Share on Social

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan



Across the country, colleges and universities are coming to grips with their racist histories by launching new education programs, creating research committees, removing Confederate iconography, and considering reparations. It is a reckoning that some believe is long overdue.

The University of Virginia, Brown University, Georgetown University, William & Mary, Washington and Lee University, the College of Charleston, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Texas Christian University, Yale University, the University of Georgia, and the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Law are just some of the many institutions with past ties to the enslavement of people.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, John C. Calhoun, Robert E. Lee, and Woodrow Wilson are some of the many historical figures who enslaved African people themselves or supported the enslavement of people by others. Their names adorn buildings, programs, scholarships, and more at countless higher education institutions.

"The history of the American college is in fact a chapter in the history of American slavery," said Craig Steven Wilder, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of a 2013 book on academia's link to slavery. "Every college that was established before the American Revolution has direct ties to slavery."

Virginia Takes the Lead in Acknowledging Racist Past

Owing to the fact that Virginia had more people enslaved than any other state and played a central role in the Confederacy, it's not surprising that many of its colleges and universities have ties to slavery or to those who supported racial subjugation.

The University of Virginia (U. Va.), for instance, was established by Jefferson, the third American president, who was an enslaver. In 2014, U. Va. founded the Universities Studying Slavery consortium as part of its commitment to confronting racial injustice.

The consortium began with five Virginia colleges and universities that were actively researching their institutional ties to the transatlantic slave trade. It grew to include other Virginia schools: Norfolk State University, Virginia Military Institute, Hampton University, Virginia Union University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia University of Lynchburg, Longwood University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Now more than 80 institutions from the U.S. and abroad have joined the consortium to respond to historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in university communities and in higher education more broadly.

Now more than 80 institutions from the U.S. and abroad have joined the consortium to respond to historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in university communities and in higher education more broadly.

Yet as schools acknowledge their racist history, it doesn't mean that change will be easy or that all changes will be made. While Princeton University removed Wilson's name from its School of Public and International Affairs on June 26, 2020, citing the former president's racism, Washington and Lee University (W&L) has taken a different approach.

W&L — a private university in Lexington, Virginia, named after George Washington and Robert E. Lee — decided to keep Lee as part of its name, despite a push from some to drop the former general because of his involvement with slavery and the Confederacy.

"The name 'Washington and Lee' does not define us. We define it," W&L president Will Dudley said in a message to the university community on June 4 after trustees voted not to drop Lee's name.

Colleges Respond to Calls for Reparations

Paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved people is a far more complicated issue. But some institutions and their students are taking action.

At Georgetown University, a student-initiated plan to pay restitution to the 272 descendants of enslaved people the school sold to raise funds was announced in 2019. The plan is designed to raise about $400,000 a year for a variety of community-based projects, such as health clinics. The first grants under the program could be made this year.

In July 2020, the University of Chicago removed a plaque and stone honoring Stephen Douglas, a U.S. senator from Illinois well known for his debates with Abraham Lincoln. Douglas enslaved people using his wife's name, according to researchers. But students remain frustrated, and those seeking reparations say the university needs to do more.

At the University of Georgia, community activists want the school to contribute to the city of Athens's efforts to atone for an urban renewal project that destroyed a Black community in the 1960s to make way for college dorms. On February 2, Athens-Clarke County mayor Kelly Girtz signed a Proclamation of Apology to those displaced by the university's expansion.

At the University of Georgia, community activists want the school to contribute to the city of Athens's efforts to atone for an urban renewal project that destroyed a Black community in the 1960s to make way for college dorms.

On March 31, undergraduate students at Brown University voted in favor of reparations for the descendants of enslaved people. About 30 members of the governing corporation at the time of Brown's founding in 1764 in Providence, Rhode Island, owned or captained the ships used to transport enslaved people, according to a report completed by the university in 2006.

On May 5, Virginia governor Ralph Northam signed a bill creating the Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Program that requires U. Va., Longwood University, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Virginia Military University, and William & Mary to provide scholarships and economic development programs to descendants of enslaved people. The five institutions benefitted from and exploited enslaved labor, according to the bill's sponsor.

Students at Harvard are similarly calling for reparations after years of announcements from the school, including dropping the law school emblem, which was derived from the crest of a family known to hold people in slavery. A committee studying the university's legacy regarding enslavement plans to release its findings and recommendations later this year.

Both Supporters and Those in Opposition Raise Concerns

Those opposed to reparations — to all descendants of enslaved people, not just those connected to higher education — say they are unnecessary or warn of dire consequences. Among them, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says it's not the responsibility of today's generation. Glenn Loury, a Brown University social sciences professor, believes reparations would be "disastrous" for the United States. He made his comments on June 20 on ABC's "This Week."

"I think talk about reparations, whatever the moral argument might be, is disastrous for the future of this country," Loury said. "Black people should not be trying to cut a separate deal with America. Let's make the country a good country for everybody and we'll be on the right path."

Another concern noted by descendants, students, and others at Georgetown University is how committed funds for reparations will be spent. Davarian Baldwin, an American studies professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, says students and activists need to keep the pressure on their schools to act.

"Universities will do as little as they can get away with," he said.

Reviewed by: Angelique Geehan

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have to themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender-binary, nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange, a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup, the Health and Healing Justice Committee of the National Queer and Trans Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, QTPOC+ Family Circle, and Batalá Houston.


Feature Image: photohoo / Getty Images

With over 100 HBCUs across the country, there are many options for students to choose. Learn why from current HBCU students. Student debt is a significant issue for HBCU students. Learn how to use HBCU Wall Street's tools and resources to combat financial challenges. There are many facets to advising and supporting college students. Learn from an expert how they approach advising HBCU students and set them up for success.