U.S. colleges continue to grapple with ties to slavery

Carolyn Thompson/Associated Press | 3/19/2020, 6 p.m.
The promise of reparations to atone for historical ties to slavery has opened new territory in a reckoning at U.S. ...
A Jesuit statue stands in front of Freedom Hall at Georgetown University in Washington. Students at the private university voted last year to add a fee to tuition to help pay for projects in communities that are home to descendants of the 272 slaves who were sold in 1838 by the university to help pay off the school’s debts. Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. - The promise of reparations to atone for historical ties to slavery has opened new territory in a reckoning at U.S. colleges, which until now have responded with monuments, building name changes and public apologies.

Georgetown University and two theological seminaries have announced funding commitments to benefit descendants of the en- slaved people who were sold or toiled to benefit the institutions.

While no other schools have gone so far, the advantages that institutions benefited from the slavery economy received new attention as the formerly crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates talked about tax credits and other subsidies that nudge the idea of reparations toward the mainstream.

The country has been discussing reparations in one way or another since slavery officially ended in 1865. Last August marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to American shores, launching the violence infflicted on black people to prop up the Southern economy.

University of Buffalo senior Jeffrey Clinton said he thinks campuses should acknowledge historical ties to slavery but that the federal government should take the lead on an issue that reaches well beyond higher education.

“It doesn’t have to be trillions of dollars ... but at least address the inequities and attack the racial wealth gap between African-Americans and white Americans and really everybody else, because this is an American-made institution. We didn’t immigrate here,” said Mr. Clinton, a descendant of enslaved people who lives in Bay Shore, N.Y.

A majority of Georgetown University undergraduates voted last April for a nonbinding referendum to pay a $27.20-per-semester “Reconciliation Contribution” toward projects in underprivileged communities that are home to some descendants of 272 slaves who were sold in 1838 to help pay off the school’s debts.

Georgetown President John DeGioia responded in October with plans instead for a university-led initiative, with the goal of raising about $400,000 from donors, rather than students, to support projects like health clinics and schools in those same communities.

Elsewhere, discussions of reparations have been raised by individual professors, like at the University of Alabama, or by graduate students and community members, like at the University of Chicago.

At least 56 universities have joined a University of Virginia- led consortium, Universities Studying Slavery, to explore their ties to slavery and share research and strategies.

In recent years, some schools, such as Yale University, have removed the names of slavery supporters from buildings. New monuments have gone up elsewhere, including Brown University’s Slavery Memorial sculpture – a partially buried ball and chain – and the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers under construction at U.Va.

“It’s a very diffused set of things happening around the nation,” said Guy Emerson Mount, an associate professor of African-American history at Auburn University. “It’s really important to pay attention to what each of these are doing” because they could offer learning opportunities and inform national discus- sions on reparations.

Virginia Theological Seminary in September announced a $1.7 million endowment fund in recognition of slaves who worked there. It said annual allocations would go toward supporting African-American clergy in the Episcopal Church and programs that promote justice and inclusion.