American colleges are documenting their own history of entanglement with slavery

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Many older American colleges take great pride in their history, preserving venerable buildings, displaying early library books and gilt-framed portraits of long-ago presidents, and including the ornate meeting rooms of 19th-century debating societies on admissions tours. But increasingly colleges also find themselves facing difficult questions about the past, sometimes from angry students demanding immediate responses. And answering has sometimes proven to be a challenge.

In the past, questions have concerned such issues as admissions limits for Jews, discrimination against gay students and faculty and staff members, and whether administrators stood up for academic freedom during the McCarthy era. Lately the hottest topic is colleges’ links to slavery — a particularly difficult issue, but one for which Brown University’s high-profile Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, created back in 2003, offers a model response. The committee was appointed by Ruth J. Simmons, then Brown’s president. She charged it both to "examine the university’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade" and to reflect on "the complex historical, political, legal, and moral questions posed by any present day confrontation with past injustice." The committee’s final report, released in 2006, runs just over 100 pages and is as eloquent as it is thorough.

Its intellectual heirs aren’t hard to find, especially now that Black Lives Matter activists have put the issue front and center. Already this year Yale University has dropped John C. Calhoun’s name from a residential college because Calhoun, a member of the Class of 1804 who served as U.S. vice president from 1825 to 1832, was a slavery proponent. Columbia University has created a website noting not only that its early presidents owned slaves but also that its first donors included many whose wealth "derived either from slave trading or from commerce in goods produced by slaves." The University of Virginia is considering where to put a memorial to enslaved laborers — some owned by the university and others hired from nearby residents — who terraced its famous Lawn and built buildings designed by one of the republic’s most prominent slaveholders, Thomas Jefferson.

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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