The social unrest and activism of 2020 pushed more colleges and universities to acknowledge the history of their entanglements with various forms of white supremacy — especially slavery. School administrators are renaming buildings and creating various kinds of memorials, statues and commissions that acknowledge the intimate relationship between their ivory towers and the history of Black bondage. In Maryland alone, St. Mary’s College recently commemorated an arresting new memorial to enslaved people who lived, labored and died there. And Johns Hopkins University launched its “Hard Histories at Hopkins” project, which discovered that its abolitionist namesake owned enslaved people.
It now seems, however, that university leaders are a bit too eager to concede higher education’s ties to U.S. slavery, arguably the most explicit form of white supremacy. Pointing to a long-ago slave past has become almost reassuring because it allows schools to acknowledge their historical wrongdoings while celebrating how far they have come. But higher education’s racial reckoning goes far beyond slavery.
Our nation’s system of higher education expanded in the 19th century through the acquisition of lands belonging to Indigenous people, and many institutions continued to protect their wealth through the racial segregation of their neighborhoods. At the same time, student activists at elite universities and community colleges alike worked to challenge racism in higher education and create institutions that served, rather than plundered, their surrounding neighborhoods. This work may provide a road map for what colleges and universities can do now to repair the racial sins of their more recent past.
In the late 19th century, the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 helped fund public universities that opened up higher education to larger segments of the nation. The Morrill Act first distributed public-domain lands to states that could then be used or sold to build the financial endowments of universities. Yet, the 10.7 million acres for this project were actually Indigenous lands, confiscated through seizure or suspect land treaties. A recent High Country News article reveals that the money made from these land sales continues to benefit universities, and at least 12 states continue to hold titles to unsold acres and profit from associated mineral rights. Both rural colleges and city schools, ranging from MIT to the University of Minnesota, built their endowments on this seizure of Indigenous land.
The 1890 version of the act extended land grants to the former Confederate states but through direct cash payments. To their credit, lawmakers included a clause prohibiting racial discrimination in admissions. Yet, rather than enforcing the integration of land-grant schools, the law provided funds to Southern states so they could build separate and underfunded historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). With that decision, the federal government used higher education policy to help reinforce racial segregation. This government-funded Jim Crow university system emerged six years before the “separate but equal doctrine” of Plessy v. Ferguson became the law of the land.