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Higher Education's Reckoning with Slavery

Two decades of activism and scholarship have led to critical self-examination.

Since 2001, faculty, students, and staff at more than seventy US colleges and universities have researched their institutions’ histories of involvement with the enslavement of people of African descent. Although that number may appear small, this work has had substantial influence. Elite private and state flagship universities are disproportionately represented among these institutions, and more than half are in Southern states. The examination of the history of higher education’s support of slavery and accompanying racist ideologies has developed into a flourishing field of academic research and inquiry. Whether the recovery of this history will be an effective tool for institutional change remains to be seen.

At the outset of this movement, most institutions feared the impact of such projects on their reputations and particularly on alumni donations. Would recovering these institutional histories discourage donors, or make colleges and universities targets for right-wing or left-wing provocateurs? But in most cases, such fears have been overcome by rigorous research and a refusal to pander to politics from any part of the ideological spectrum. Indeed, this new field of inquiry has also engaged students, particularly undergraduates, in historical research that has real-world applicability. For many participants in these projects, investigating histories of slavery and race helps them connect the dots to today’s racial issues, just as study of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence helps us to understand the foundational ideologies of our nation. These histories are not a complete answer to the sometimes confounding racial situations in which colleges and universities find themselves, but uncovering them goes a long way toward making clear how embedded issues of race and racism are in our institutions—and how covering them up has done no one any favors.

Inception of a Movement

Although Brown University garnered the most headlines in the early years of this movement, Brown was just one of several institutions where faculty, students, and administrators pioneered processes for investigating, publicizing, and redressing histories of slavery and race. In 2002, the year before Brown’s efforts began, groups at two other institutions were already critically examining higher education and slavery.