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Excavating higher education’s sins of the past


In 1838 in order to save their badly-mismanaged institution, Georgetown University leaders, Jesuit priests, sold 272 African Americans In 1838 in order to save their badly-mismanaged institution, Georgetown University leaders, Jesuit priests, sold 272 African Americans
Amid the pomp and circumstance of these weeks’ college and university graduation ceremonies, it’s worth noting the “excavation projects” going on at some of them and in higher education generally. What’s being dug up is more evidence of the depth and breadth of America’s betrayal of Black Americans and its own ideals.

Specifically, during this past year, we’ve learned how some colleges and universities were complicit in maintaining slavery, and supporting White supremacist ideas throughout the following 100 years.

One particularly poignant example of that can be found in an April 16, New York Times article noting that in 1838 in order to save their badly-mismanaged institution, Georgetown University leaders, Jesuit priests, sold 272 African Americans held in bondage on the university’s Maryland plantations. The sale achieved its purpose. Georgetown was saved; the enslaved Black men, women and children, many of whom were being split from their families, were not. “The university owes its existence to this history,” Adam Rothman, a Georgetown historian, told the Times.

That Georgetown was a slaveholding institution has been known for decades; university officials of that era kept meticulous records of who they were while the university “owned” them and of the sale that sent them to much harsher conditions on plantations in Louisiana.

Now, via a special university committee (headed by Professor Rothman) and an independent project established by a White Georgetown alumnus, Georgetown officials have already found numerous descendants of those men, women and children who were once “university property.”

And, prodded by student protests last fall, they’ve removed the names of the two college presidents, who organized the sale, from buildings on the Georgetown campus.

In recent years, the “name-on-buildings” issue has been highly controversial on numerous campuses, including Harvard, Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Clemson and Middle Tennessee University. The two most highly visible protests on the issue have occurred at Princeton University, where students and others demanded the university change the name of its world-famous Woodrow Wilson School of Government, and at Yale, where protesters demanded officials change the name of its residential college now named after John C. Calhoun, the 19th-century South Carolina Senator and slave-owner who’s often described as the “Father” of the Confederacy.

Wilson, of course, was president of Princeton before being elected president of the U.S. in 1912. An arch-racist, he ordered the rigid segregation of the federal workforce in Washington and throughout the country, imposing far-reaching rules about hiring and promotion that devastated an entire cohort of black blue-and white-collar workers.

Both Princeton and Yale have refused the protesters demands, asserting that continuing to keep the names encourages a greater discussion of social justice issues.

Most conservatives and some self-proclaimed liberals have quickly condemned such demands as just “political theater” and an effort by the protesters to “sanitize” history by holding these White men of the past to “standards of today.” Additionally, the critics claim such protests are a “distraction” from the real “problems” the protesters should be focusing on.

But it’s these criticisms that can’t stand the slightest scrutiny. As I mentioned before, it’s precisely because a great deal more of the truth about John C. Calhoun has been written in recent decades that it’s right to question why a man who was a slave-owner and described Negro slavery as a “positive good” deserves to be honored today by an institution supposedly devoted to fostering not just learning but a commitment to ethical behavior.

As a slave-owner Calhoun- at the least-supported the culture of kidnapping, murder, rape and brutal assaults that was central to the establishment and maintenance of slavery in America. Although he died before the Civil War began, he was chief architect of the crackpot principles the South adopted as a smokescreen for waging war against the United States. Removing his name from a residential college at one of the nation’s elite colleges hardly means he would be “erased” from history. That assertion is even more ludicrous when it comes to Woodrow Wilson, America’s president during what essentially was the moment the present world order was created.

Finally, it’s particularly revealing that critics resort to the “standards of today” argument-as if the idea of equality as an “unalienable” human right has not been held up as a bedrock principle of Christianity long before America was founded; as if it was not stated as the central principle of the U.S. Constitution itself; and as if African and African Americans had not begun asserting that principle in the 1620s as the foundation of their struggle against slavery.

It makes one wonder just what “standards” do these critics live by.

Lee A. Daniels, a former reporter for The Washington Post and the New York Times, is also a former editor of The National Urban League’s The State of Black America. He can be reached