Penn Students Questioned the University's Comforting Story about its Relationship to SlaveryHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, University of Pennsylvania
THE MORE VANJESSICA GLADNEY LEARNED about the preacher memorialized on her college campus, the more infuriated she became.
Gladney, who is Black, had occasionally passed the imposing statue of George Whitefield on her way to class. Whitefield’s followers owned the building in Old City that became the first campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Whitefield himself lived in Georgia, where he devoted himself to re-legalizing slavery in the colony.
“It is impossible for the inhabitants to subsist without the use of slaves,” Whitefield wrote in 1747. In 1751 he won his crusade, and by 1790, 29,000 enslaved people labored in Georgia.
His tenuous connection to the University of Pennsylvania might have faded away entirely. But a century later in 1899, eyeing their Ivy League rivals, Penn’s trustees relied on Whitefield to claim that the university was in fact as old as its oldest part.
By adopting 1740 as its founding date, Penn could leapfrog Princeton and claim to be the “first university” (and fourth college) in the United States. In 1919, the university cemented Whitefield’s place in its mythology, unveiling a bronze statue of him in front of the freshman dorms.
Gladney, a senior in 2018, was troubled by what the Whitefield connection revealed about her college. She knew that in the recent past, Penn had vigilantly denied any ties to slavery, even as colleges across the country unearthed their own shameful histories. But now it seemed to her that the statue of Whitefield typified what her university cared most about — and what it was willing to overlook.
University leaders had chosen to chase prestige by binding the school to a vigorous advocate of slavery, while later using the university's Quaker roots to shield it from accountability.
At the suggestion of her professor Kathleen Brown, a historian at Penn, Gladney and a few other students began excavating the university’s past, calling themselves the Penn & Slavery Project. Over time, they discovered a web of university entanglements with slave traders and slave owners that fundamentally disproved the story Penn told about itself.
It remains to be seen whether Penn will tell a new story. The university acknowledged the students’ work in 2018 and funded related projects and conferences. But Penn still has not taken the steps many of its peers across the country have, such as creating permanent monuments on campus, building a center for research about slavery, setting aside money for restitution, or even simply joining a large formal group called Universities Studying Slavery.
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