College Investigations of Their Connections to Slavery

By Dr. Alfred Brophy

Thanks to the folks at Diverse Education for their kind invitation to sit for a spell at The Academy Speaks. My “home” blog is thefacultylounge, so there’s a real theme of talking! I’m looking forward to talking about a lot of topics in race and law and history.

I’d like to lead off with a topic we’ve been hearing a lot about around the academy these days: schools’ investigations of their connections to the institution of slavery. Brown University set the standard for us all a couple of years back when their slavery and justice committee put out a terrific report on Brown University’s connections to slavery (and to anti-slavery as well) and Brown’s connections to the wider world of slavery in Rhode Island and the world that Rhode Island traded with (the West Indies, Africa, and Europe). Some other schools have followed Brown’s lead.

Since Brown’s report in 2006, the University of Virginia has apologized for its connections to slavery and William and Mary and the University of Maryland have faculty and students who are talking about self-investigations.

Right now, though Harvard’s not going to be following them right now. As I said about William and Mary’s deliberations, the decision of what–if anything–to do is best left to a school’s current students, faculty, and administration. If Harvard students and faculty think this is something that should be pursued, they should pursue it, through their research and advocacy. The rest of us who don’t have to live with these difficult discussions shouldn’t put the onus on Harvard’s administration. And certainly the current students and faculty (and even alums to the extent that they care) shouldn’t expect the administration to carry the burden, either. Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, is one of our country’s leading historians; however, that is different from her role as president.

One thing that I think a self-investigation would remind us is the school’s connections to anti-slavery as well as proslavery thought. Harvard, like Brown, was a major training ground for anti-slavery thinkers. (A point made well in this article from the Crimson last Thursday.) Brown’s president during much of the antebellum period, Francis Wayland, was a leading antislavery advocate. Emerson, Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker … all Harvard alums. (Of course, Joseph Story, Lemuel Shaw, Timothy Walker … all Harvard alums, too.)

I’ll be talking more about the virtues and problems of these investigations shortly.

Dr. Alfred Brophy is a professor of law. 


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