December 09, 2019

Teaching in the Shadow of Slavery

Myron strongBy Myron Strong

On a warm day in the spring, a colleague and I walked into Hilton Hall located on the Catonsville campus of my college. The campus was once a plantation and Hilton Hall, which more commonly is known as “the mansion,” had been renovated over the past 3 years for $10 million. I had never been there before and it was an eerie experience. It reminded me of growing up in Eudora, Arkansas, a small rural town that also was once a plantation, and had evolved into a segregated town separated by railroad tracks. There is spiritual weight to these places. History has mass – you feel it, see it and taste it. I felt it in “the mansion.”

I was there giving a lecture for a program, Invisible History: Exploring CCBC Hilton Center, a program created to address complaints expressed by some students, faculty, and staff concerning the college embracing a symbol of trauma and oppression. The program featured a panel of professors from different disciplines as well as the college president. When I heard about the program, I was afraid that it would glance over or romanticize history, so I insisted on being a part of it.

There are plenty of programs at colleges and plantations that completely overlook the legacy of slavery branded onto their landscape. They hold weddings and receptions and reenactments that create symbolic annihilation of the Black experience. Therefore, I felt a strong urge and responsibility to my ancestors and the students to participate on the panel but also a sense of anxiety as I wondered how do I compete with the memories and emotions of the space filled by the years on enslavement and white supremacy.
The "mansion"
Photo courtesy of the author


The program was outside in the backyard where the “mansion” cast a slight shadow on the table and chairs. We were literally in the shadow of slavery. It brought up some interesting contradictions within me – on the one hand, nervousness about the situation, and on the other and it honestly reminded me of running around playing outside as kid. A flash of memory of my childhood: one frame with joy of running through the open fields, but also with a backdrop of racial segregation. It’s funny what you associate with an environment like this. As I am sitting there, all I keep thinking of Frederick Douglass’ “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July” speech.

While this experience centered on my college, it illustrates a larger point. There is undeniable legacy between higher education and the institution of slavery. During the inaugural Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies conference held at Emory University in 2011, historian Leslie Harris discussed the connection between the institution of slavery and the establishment of institutions of higher education, the biggest open secret in the history of the world.

This is explored in great detail in Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, as historian Craig Steven Wilder chronicles the entanglement between colleges and institution of slavery. The founding, financing, and development of higher education in the colonies were thoroughly intertwined with the economic and social forces that transformed West and Central Africa through slave trade and devastated indigenous nations in America.

A 2016 New York Times article highlighted this connection by exploring the early history Georgetown University. While struggling to survive, in 1838 Georgetown secured its future by selling 272 enslaved people worth about $3.3 million in current dollars in order support the struggling college.

Colleges and universities, like most institutions in the United States, are sites of trauma. All of us who attend, teach or visit college campus do so in the shadow of slavery. But whether we attend or not, we are all affected by this legacy, because the legacies extend past the campus grounds and into other areas.

Daina Ramey Berry makes the connection in The Price for Their Pound of Flesh when she reveals how America’s top medical schools bought slaves to serve as body snatchers in order to make up for the cadaver shortage. Berry points out how slaveholders would supply medical schools with dead slaves over the protests of their kin to give them a proper burial. This emphasizes that we need to not only understand that the physical structures were built by enslaved people, but also that the ideas that maintain the institution and others as well biased laws, practices, and justification for oppression were derived from higher education.

The relationship between people of color and these institutions point to just how ingrained racist ideologies are on campuses. Recent racist incidents at schools at Georgia Southern University and Iowa State University communicate long held racist ideologies within the system still exist and illustrate the open hostility towards people of color that shape their experiences on campuses. 

W. Carson Byrd’s book, Poison in the Ivy: Race Relations and the Reproduction of Inequality on Elite College Campuses, explores the ways college students at elite colleges develop their views of race and inequality. What the author found is that traditional views of race and inequality get reproduced on campuses. But it extends beyond because mostly white students use established networks and leave for opportunities, including top employment and leadership prospects, upon graduation. They then continue to bring these traditional beliefs to various levels of society that maintain systematic oppression.

This isn’t to say that that some institutions do not acknowledge this troubled history. In April 2019, undergraduate students at Georgetown University voted to add a new fee of $27.20 per student per semester to their tuition bill, designated to supporting education and health care programs in Louisiana and Maryland, where many of 4,000 descendants of the 272 enslaved people live.

There is also Universities Studying Slavery (USS), a multi-institutional collaboration between more than 70 colleges and universities as part of an effort to facilitate mutual support in the pursuit of common goals around the core theme of “Universities Studying Slavery.” The collaboration allows participating institutions to work together as they address both historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education, as well as in university communities that have complicated legacies of slavery. Most member institutions have initiatives like Rutgers’ Scarlet and Black Project that explore their role and present recommendations to acknowledge their past.

Still, the majority of schools ignore their connection to slavery, and students of color continue to protest and call for action. They continue to isolate themselves from their experiences and histories. It’s not hard to see why students of color seek spaces like fraternities, diversity centers and organizations, or faculty and staff of color within the institutions.

So as we continue to transition as a society, colleges have to be held accountable for the past and present. They have to acknowledge and work with victims, students and advocacy scholars to create systems free for white supremacy, misogyny and other oppressions.

Even though we have made progress, progress is limited by the institutions that educate us. I lean on the words of the great Audre Lorde:

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.

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