Many universities around the United States are attempting to grapple with their institution’s history of direct and indirect involvement with transatlantic slavery. One of the first schools to do so was Brown University, which appointed a special committee in 2003 to study its historic institutional ties to slavery. After three years of investigation and discussion, the Brown committee recommended the creation of a public campus memorial and widespread educational efforts. In 2015, Georgetown University undertook a similar investigation on its campus; the working group ultimately recommended renaming certain university buildings, erecting public memorials, creating an academic center of the study of slavery, and providing an admissions preference for the descendants of slaves who worked for the university or were sold for its financial benefit. There is now a multinational coalition of over fifty colleges and universities engaged in investigating their institutions’ historic connections with both enslaved individuals and the institution of slavery itself.
Alongside these historical investigations, universities are facing demands from students, alumni, and faculty to address both campus building names and monuments that appear to glorify a slave-owning past. Yale University, for example, initially declined to rename one of its residential colleges that bore the name of a vigorous pro-slavery advocate; eventually, the school agreed to do so. For many years, Princeton University rejected demands to rename its School of Public and International Affairs and a residence hall that honored President Woodrow Wilson, despite the man’s steadfast racism and xenophobia, opting instead to diversify campus art and iconography. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the mass protests against police brutality in 2020, the school finally removed Wilson’s name from both the School of Public Affairs and the residence hall (but continues to embrace use of the name in other university honors). In some places, disputes over campus monuments have drawn large protests. Highly publicized battles have flared on the campus of the University of Mississippi, for example. Disputes over monuments have led to violence; in 2017, a counterprotestor was killed at the University of Virginia when she was run over by a car driven by a supporter of the campus statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In the wake of unprecedented public demonstrations of support for racial justice during the summer of 2020, demands that universities account for their past and present actions will likely take on new salience.
Bridget J. Crawford, Taxation as a Site of Memory: Exemptions, Universities, and the Legacy of Slavery, 73 S.M.U. L. Rev. F. 222 (2020), https://digitalcommons.pace.edu/lawfaculty/1165/.