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'Liberty and slavery are intertwined:' How universities are addressing undesirable pasts

Prestigious universities such as Georgetown, Princeton, and others are coming to terms with their dark history of slavery.

As schools across the country try to figure out how to combat hate and divisive rhetoric on their campuses, students, faculty, and staff at some of the country’s most prestigious universities are coming to terms with their undesirable pasts.

In the past few years, schools such as Georgetown, Harvard, and William & Mary have sought to make amends for their past ties to slavery through special programs, research projects and symposiums.

Craig Steven Wilder, a history professor at MIT and author of the book, "Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities," said schools are realizing they can't hide from their dark past.

“They do have to address it. And the questions they are starting to ask now is how they address it, and so I think the idea that one can simply ignore their past, I think that idea has been toppled," he said.

Princeton University is one of the most recent schools to confront its past. The school unveiled its Princeton & Slavery project in November, an online database and portal sharing documentation of the university’s past ties to slavery. The university’s first nine presidents all owned slaves. Additionally, slaves were sold at sale on campus in 1766 and slaves lived at the President’s House until at least 1822.

Image: People walk around the Princeton University campus in New Jersey
People walk around the Princeton University campus in New Jersey.(C) Eduardo Munoz / Reuters / REUTERS

“My hope is that whatever conversations ensue on this campus and in this community of Princeton, New Jersey, will be deeply, deeply informed. Information is your friend when you’re having difficult conversations on things like this,” said Project Director Martha Sandweiss.

The project started as an undergraduate research program in 2013 and expanded into an ambitious research project, Sandweiss said.

“The biggest takeaway is that the history of Princeton is the history of America,” she said later, adding: “That’s the paradox that lies at heart of all American history. Liberty and slavery are intertwined.”

She said it was surprising how many students came from the south. Between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, roughly 40 percent came from the south.

“It means a lot of young southern men from slave-holding families were living here in New Jersey and confronting free people of color for the first time,” she said. “And that helps explain some of the acts of violence that were documented between south students and local African-Americans.”

At Georgetown, university President John DeGioia announced in 2016 that the school will give preferential treatment to descendants of slaves for recruitment to the university. DeGioria convened a working group to make recommendations on how best to atone for the past. In 1838, more than 270 slaves who worked on Jesuit plantations were sold and the proceeds used to pay off debts at Georgetown.

In 2017, the school renamed two campus buildings in remembrance of the slaves — one after Isaac Hawkins, a 65-year-old slave, and another after Anne Marie Becraft, a free black woman who started a school for girls at Georgetown. Mélisande Short-Colomb, 63, a descendant of Hawkins, started classes at Georgetown in fall of 2017.

Image: Melisande Colomb, 63 attends Georgetown University
The university has granted legacy status to descendants of slaves as part of an effort to atone for the sale of their ancestors. M?lisande Short-Colomb walks a hallway at Georgetown on August 30, 2017.Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post via Getty Images

But some say the university's action aren't enough. On Wednesday, Dee Taylor, a descendant of slave Isaac Hawkins, along with other descendants of slaves held a press conference demanding reparations from the university.

In 2016, Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust convened a faculty committee of historians to research and provide recommendations for initiatives related to the school’s past ties to slavery. In April of 2016, a plaque was unveiled honoring four women and men who were enslaved on the campus in the 18th century.

Princeton University hosted a symposium exploring the topic of slavery, where Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison delivered the keynote address. “What other living writer has so helped people feel and imagine and reckon with the legacy of slavery?” Sandweiss said.

Meanwhile, McCarter Theatre commissioned short plays based on historic documents. “Playwrights can go where historians can’t,” Sandweiss said.

In the first 48 hours of the Princeton & Slavery Project website launch, people from 75 countries looked at it, Sandweiss noted.

Isabela Rosales, a Ph.D. student who helped with the research on the Princeton & Slavery project, said she hopes it will help generate conversations about issues people “try to sweep under the rug.”

“A lot of times we either try to ignore the very darker parts of our history or we try to excuse it in some way,” Rosales said. “I think having this project receive so much attention that it has and be easily available online is going to help generate that conversation.”

In 2009, the College of William & Mary started the Lemon Project, an endeavor that includes archival research and working with the African-American community on campus and around the school. The project is named for a man who was once enslaved by the school.

“The full story needs to be told,” said Jody Allen, director of the project, adding: “There’s such a fear in general in acknowledging slavery. It’s time to really get it out there and to deal with it.”

Brown University was one of the first schools to take up the issue. Back in 2003, the school formed a committee to investigate the university’s historic tie to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

Wilder, the professor at MIT, said the staggered nature of the reports speaks to the universities’ continued reluctance and resistance to confront their pasts.

“Rather than looking at this as their obligation and sort of aggressively addressing that obligation, they’ve kind of waited and waited and been pulled and forced into addressing this path,” he said.

He believes more need to be done than simply releasing reports about the historical ties to slavery, he said.

“One of the things that will happen, I hope, is that as universities explore their histories with slavery and make those histories public…one of the things we will have to do is deal with the question of how we incorporate that knowledge into the culture, the intellectual and social culture but also how the universities address that path and respond to that path that are more than just academic,” he said.

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