By Alfred L. Brophy
Issue date: 11/21/06

Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice recently made a report that details the connections of the Brown family to both the slave trade and to antislavery advocacy. Brown’s report is the most comprehensive of several recent discussions on other campuses. Students at Yale and the University of Virginia are talking about their universities’ connections to slavery. The University of North Carolina sponsored an exhibit on slavery at that school. Mostly campus explorations involve talk about the past. However, in 2002 Vanderbilt University tried to drop "Confederate" from the name of a building on its campus. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, who had given money in the 1930s for the building, sued and won.

Before the Civil War many educational institutions-both North and South-benefited from slavery. Harvard Law School’s first endowed chair was funded by a man, Isaac Royall, who made a fortune from his slaves’ labor. But schools were not just beneficiaries of slavery; they were supporters of it as well. William and Mary Professor Thomas Roderick Dew wrote what became our country’s leading proslavery tract. Randolph-Macon College’s President William Smith wrote a college textbook on proslavery thought. It taught that abolition would be an "essential evil-a curse" for slaves.

Then there is Columbia University’s Barnard College, which opened in 1889, more than two decades after the end of slavery. It was named after F.A.P. Barnard, who was president of Columbia in the years after the Civil War and was an important proponent of women’s education. Barnard served in the War Department during the Civil War and thus helped to end slavery.

Before the Civil War, Barnard was a professor at the University of Alabama, where he benefited from the system of slavery. One slave worked as his laboratory assistant. Barnard’s connections to slavery go deeper than a nostalgic story about a lab assistant, however. He also appears to have owned several women. In the 1850s, when Barnard was chancellor at the University of Mississippi, he expelled a student who attacked one of his female slaves. The student then complained that Barnard relied on testimony of a slave against a white person. Mississippi’s trustees tried and acquitted Barnard of that offense.

We find slavery is linked to many of our institutions and some may question whether we should be honoring people with such connections to slavery. Yet, names of colleges and buildings are part of traditions. In remembering and learning about those traditions, we learn more about ourselves. And we learn that a person or an institution connected to slavery can also be the vehicle for our liberation as a people. Now when we think about Barnard College we can also remember and honor the people whose labor and suffering contributed to our nation’s growth.

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