COLUMNIST ASKS: How Should Colleges Right the Wrong of Enslaved Black People Who Helped Build Top Universities?

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 10.04.22 AMThis column is written based on the idea that American universities need to do something about the fact that enslaved black people were forced to build their campuses. Read the whole column; then give us your thoughts below.


The colleges and universities of America are emerging as a battleground in the fight for racial justice, and the struggle to reclaim history and come to terms with a legacy of oppression. All of America’s institutions were complicit in the enslavement of Africans, and certainly higher education was no exception. Within these halls of learning, leaders were cultivated, society was conditioned and indoctrinated with certain values, and slavery was upheld. Universities exploited Black people and profited from their bondage. And now, at a time when Black Lives Matter, a reckoning with the past is unfolding.

Meanwhile, as these colleges commemorate the Black bodies they once chained up — some even offering apologies — the question that arises is whether additional debts have yet to be paid, and if so, to whom.

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Recently, Harvard University unveiled a plaque to commemoratefour enslaved Black people who labored in the president’s residence in the 1700s.  And at Harvard Law School, student protests led to the removal of the school seal, which was the family seal of slave owner  Isaac Royall, who donated his estate to the first law professorship at Harvard.  Now, Reclaim HLS — the student group involved in racial justice activism around the Royall seal and the defacing of portraits of Black professors — is demanding an end to tuition:

The effects of HLS’ astronomical tuition fees are racially biased. Due to the legacy of centuries of white supremacy and plunder, people of color are less likely to have amassed wealth in the United States. Therefore, these fees disproportionately burden students of color, not only by creating a barrier to attending HLS, but also by constraining the career choices of those who do attend by saddling them with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. How can Harvard Law graduates be expected to advance justice or the well-being of society when they are forced to make career decisions based on paying off this burdensome debt?

For Rena Karefa-Johnson — a third-year student at Harvard Law School — there is a direct link between slavery and the issue of tuition.

“The legacy of slavery ties in with the seal very explicitly. More broadly, the seal was first chosen solely on the grounds that its original owner was the first benefactor of the law school and the wealth he derived from it came from the labor of enslaved Africans,” she told Atlanta Black Star. “Our financial justice campaign is, in part, about returning the benefits of that labor to the descendants of those who actually earned it.”

Karefa-Johnson believes that universities such as Harvard owe a great deal to Black people.

“The fact that institutions like Harvard are beginning to recognize their ties and debts to enslaved Africans is an important first step. But recognizing this truth is different from reckoning with it. Reckoning is what these institutions owe Black Americans,” she added.

“This is what Reclaim HLS’s demands are about: reckoning not only with the existence of slavery, but with its legacy. Apologizing for slavery is nice. But what’s crucial is using the lessons of the past to change your way of thinking about the present and the future,” the student-activist noted. “Had the Harvard of yesterday done what we are now asking it to do — listened to the most marginalized students and workers in the Harvard community when they explain how the institution entrenches race, class and gender oppression both within the school and in society — then perhaps that Harvard would have been closer aligned with the abolitionists rather than the slaveholders.”

Craig Steven Wilder, professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, elaborated on the notion of universities being held accountable to their stakeholders and the Black community for their role in slavery.

“My sense is that these universities first owe themselves, their students and alumni, and their other constituencies the truth about their historical ties to slavery and the slave trade. This means taking institutional responsibility for the work of researching and making public the ways in which they both benefited from and participated in the slave economies,” said Wilder, who is author of “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.”


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