A nationwide reckoning about colleges’ ties to slavery

January 10, 2021

In recent years, colleges across the country have faced questions about how they should account for the racism of their founding figures. How should racist benefactors, especially those who were enslavers, be remembered? Should universities pay reparations to those descended from enslaved people? Who gets a say in these decisions?

Georgetown University’s explicit connection to slavery came to public attention in 2016 after historians discovered that two former university presidents had orchestrated the sale of 272 enslaved Black people to pay off the institution’s debts in 1838. Soon after, the university established a working group to examine the institution’s ties to the slave trade and find ways to make amends. Georgetown eventually committed to raising $400,000 a year to pay reparations to the descendants of the 272 enslaved people.

Yale, meanwhile, has grappled with the legacy of its benefactor and namesake Elihu Yale, a British-American businessman who trafficked and sold enslaved people. Last June, far-right figures took to social media with the hashtag #CancelYale to mock progressives’ attempts to rename institutions. Others then co-opted the hashtag to demand seriously that administrators rename the university, a step that senior university staff has said it has no plans of taking.

Another controversy emerged at Yale in 2017 when students organized to protest the residential college named after pro-slavery Senator John C. Calhoun. After the protests garnered national attention, the administration renamed the college in honor of Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the preeminent computer scientists of the 20th century.

Most recently, in December, Johns Hopkins University released a statement acknowledging that its founder and namesake, who had long been heralded as an abolitionist, had in fact enslaved a number of people in the decades preceding the 1864 abolition of slavery in Maryland. The university has since joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, to which Georgetown, Yale, and over 70 other colleges — but not Williams — also belong. 

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