Universities across the country are facing up to their past association with slavery

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These days, academe’s early dependence on slavery has risen to the surface. Investigating and publicizing that past, once uncommon, has become a badge of seriousness. Brown University paved the way with a landmark report in 2006. The movement gained momentum with Wilder’s book in 2013 and has spread to so many institutions that a consortium exists to facilitate their efforts.

The new self-studies can be as vast as the story of slavery itself. For example, researchers at the University of Virginia have found that 5,000 or more enslaved laborers worked there during the 45 years between its founding and emancipation. Slaves created the 900,000 bricks that made up the Rotunda of what is now a Unesco World Heritage site, according to Elizabeth R. Varon, a historian at UVa. The university has addressed that history through measures like a formal expression of regret from its governing board, extensive community meetings, naming a new dorm after a former slave couple, a memorial project, and a lecture course meant as a new way of initiating undergraduates into campus culture.

Probably no reckoning with academic slavery has captured the public imagination like the one at Georgetown University, where a penitent president has offered preferential admissions treatment to descendants of 272 slaves whose 1838 sale shored up the Jesuit institution’s finances.





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