Redress for Slavery and Racism at Universities — Is the Hard Question Really What to Do About It?

In 2003, Brown University President Ruth Simmons made a courageous and visionary decision in creating the first university commission seriously examining slavery or racism in an institution’s history. Few other universities at that time were attempting anything as ambitious to begin to come to terms with their difficult pasts. Simmons charged the Brown commission with considering the moral dimensions of that past and with preparing for a future in which Brown might create models of contemporary redress. Her hope was that the committee’s work would “enrich debate on an issue [repair] that had aroused great public passion but little constructive public dialogue.”[1] Sadly, Simmons’ charge and the ensuing 2006 Brown commission report, revolutionary and pioneering though they were, appeared to make but a brief splash. A New York Times editorial in October 2006 noted that “countless other institutions might be surprised, and ashamed, if they dug as deeply into their pasts as Brown has over the past three years” and somewhat pessimistically ended with the warning that “the hard question is what to do about it.”

Quietly, though, the ripple effect of the work at Brown University spread to other schools, even if much of that work remained largely siloed at individual institutions and avoided questions of repair. The ensuing fifteen years since the publication of the Brown report have clearly demonstrated the importance of Simmons’ call for universities to be unafraid to follow historical truth wherever it might lead.

In 2004, the University of Alabama faculty senate voted overwhelmingly to apologize to the descendants of enslaved people who were owned by faculty members before 1865 but took no further action. One year later, Emory University launched the faculty-led “Transforming Community Project,” a forum to explore the history and experience of race and racism at Emory and elsewhere that culminated in the first national conference focusing on the role of slavery in shaping the founding and growth of American universities. In 2007, a Harvard University historian began teaching an undergraduate research seminar that over four years uncovered the forgotten history of slavery at Harvard. The College of William and Mary launched its Lemon Project in 2009 exploring the school’s “past involvement with slavery and the complexities of race relations from the end of the Civil War to date.” Professors and archivists at the University of South Carolina similarly launched a seminar program in 2010 that served as the foundation for a website on slavery at the early institution. Scholars at the University of Virginia initiated the Jefferson’s University-The Early Life digital humanities project in 2011 and in 2013 both UVA and Princeton began official university research projects.

That same year, Craig Steven Wilder published Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, powerfully arguing that the “academy never stood apart from American slavery — in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built upon bondage.” Ongoing work at dozens of schools today reminds us that little changed for decades after the general emancipation in 1865 — universities continued to benefit from and perpetuate racist ideologies that were the enduring legacies of the era of slavery.[2]

There’s some reason to be hopeful, though, that collaborative smaller scale initiatives and localized reparative projects are worth pursuing while simultaneously continuing to call for an appropriate federal program. In 2021, colleges and universities in nineteen states and the nation’s capital are joined by schools in Canada, Scotland, Ireland, and England researching historic ties to slavery, the slave trade, and post-emancipation racism. This work no longer proceeds in splintered and separate fashion. Currently, seventy-eight schools all participate in a growing movement known as Universities Studying Slavery (USS). This consortium started in 2015 as an informal gathering of a handful of Virginia schools. Things changed dramatically in that year as the Movement for Black Lives swept across campuses in the United States. Georgetown University, which had already established a working group when sit-in protests engulfed the campus in fall 2015, connected with UVA for a teach-in on the topic. Inspired by the conversations and connections made at the teach-in, the UVA President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (PCSU) decided in 2016 to formalize that initial gathering of Virginia schools, renaming it “Universities Studying Slavery,” with Georgetown joining as the first institution outside Virginia. Since then, on average, one school a month for the past five years has reached out to UVA, asked for help, and then joined the consortium. The movement’s focus has also expanded, now encompassing slavery and racism more broadly construed.

That membership growth, and with it the richness of the shared conversation across campuses, has been breathtaking. Schools no longer operate in isolation — they share best practices, guiding principles, and successful strategies at two conferences each year. A different school hosts each meeting and since 2017, they have become large-scale endeavors. In that year, UVA created the “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory, and the Built Landscape” symposium, with over five hundred attendees and a 300-person waitlist. Demand has been high for consortium membership, for hosting USS conferences, and for the conversations and knowledge-sharing these conferences deliver. Why not harness all that potential power now and model how repair can work?

Despite schools’ tendency to view the public work of truth-telling about slavery and racism from a deficit perspective, it turns out that fearlessly following truth wherever it may lead is a hallmark of culturally responsive pedagogy and foundational to academic excellence. Every university’s contemporary strategic vision references some combination of research, knowledge production, education, diversity, and engaged citizenship, all in the service of the common good.[3] Thus, truth-telling is in fact good for any university’s brand, is more in tune with the current generation of college students, and perfectly consonant with their own strategic visions. It should come as no surprise then that this work has spread from campus to campus quickly in the past several years.

Eighteen years after Ruth Simmons charged the Brown University Steering Committee on Race and Justice “to organize academic events and activities that might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously, and rigorously about the questions raised” by both individual school research findings and by considering reparations, colleges and universities working together may finally be in a position to model for the nation and world how it can be done. By examining slavery and racism in their own institutional pasts, they are teaching generations of students, producing new knowledge, engaging their local communities as real partners in these projects, and inviting other schools to join them. Universities engaging in these truth-telling projects — in particular Yale University and UVA — have also produced models for how to re-think public space and the built landscape, creating well-articulated guiding principles for naming, renaming, recontextualization, and removal while also developing new ethical practices for doing so. Similar efforts, inspired by the work at universities, have begun to include secondary schools. It’s hard to imagine that cities, counties, and states might not also follow in consulting these universities as they seek help with rethinking their own landscapes and public history. In Virginia, both houses of the General Assembly passed a bill in February 2021 requiring five state schools founded before 1865 to identify those enslaved at the school, create scholarships for descendants, or launch contemporary equity projects. Virginia Governor Northam signed that bill into law at the beginning of April and its provisions will go into effect in the 2022–23 school year.

Regardless, all the hard work of research, acknowledgement, education, and atonement has many school — including those outside Virginia — perhaps approaching a familiar crossroad: a return to an important and long-overdue conversation about reparations and repair. As Yogi Berra is said to have remarked in 1961, it may indeed be “Déjà vu all over again.” On this final point, little has changed in the United States in the past eighteen years. Ruth Simmons likewise noted in 2003, there remains “little constructive dialogue” on repair for slavery and racism. We can wait for both houses of the U.S. Congress to let H.R. 40, a proposed bill that would create a commission to study and develop reparations for African Americans, to make it to the floor of both houses and pass; we can wait for a President to use the executive branch to create a national truth and reconciliation commission, or we can find other ways to move the needle in the near term while supporting efforts to institute something at the federal level. The city of Evanston, Illinois just launched a rather unique municipal reparations program. It may not be enough, but it is a start to a real repair process. Universities represent a promising place to continue expansion of similar repair efforts. The ripple effect created by Brown in 2006 and enhanced by UVA’s creation and leadership of Universities Studying Slavery since 2016 may hold real promise for how schools working together might create effective models for repair in ways that remain wholly consistent with university strategic visions while also creatively redefining how to engage in substantive repair.

First, universities outside of the United States, freed from the stale and politicized reality of American conversations around reparations, have begun to create true programs of substantive repair. For instance, the University of Glasgow has committed twenty million dollars over the next decade to repair in the West Indies. USS member schools in Canada, England, Scotland, and Ireland all directly discuss and consider reparative justice as a core element of their projects and are modeling what these programs might look like in the United States. Though limited, the American institutional approach of engaging primarily in symbolic repair and connecting with descendants of those harmed is expanding our understanding of what repair entails and also laying the foundations for future university redress projects.

Second, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) have joined Universities Studying Slavery — schools whose existence are themselves in some ways legacies of the slavery and racism for which predominantly white institutions are attempting to atone. HBCU members bring critical perspective to consortium conversations, providing clear-eyed guidance on both the need for repair and how schools might work together to do it. The question of what to do about it isn’t so difficult after all. One obvious first step is USS member institution commitment of resources in support of the HBCU mission — this holds the promise of being national in scope and targeting systemic repair. Tougaloo College, working with Universities Studying Slavery, has already developed just such a practical reparative option, with USS schools supporting HBCUs in a multi-institution partnership designed to push resources (including federal research grant funds) to HBCUs to help them build research infrastructure.

Together, those are just a few of the possible collaborative pilot repair programs that await implementation and support. But there’s so much more that the collective could address in ways that would magnify and multiply the individual efforts in each campus community. The work should be about so much more than scholarships and diversifying student populations. Universities could together fund and support a national program training and supporting K-12 teaching. This work is often going on in an ad hoc manner, with some university faculty working with local primary and secondary teachers on training and curricular development, but such work is usually driven by underfunded K-12 teachers themselves. Universities could easily fund and support those programs and do so on the macro-scale. Such work also aligns perfectly with institutions’ strategic visions toward leadership and community engagement while also engaging in meaningful educational repair.

Universities should also collaborate creatively on how to make college-level curricular changes that include teaching this history in creative ways across the disciplines. It’s not enough to restructure how slavery and racism are taught in elementary and secondary schools — universities need to make substantive change to their own teaching. We need to move beyond outdated thinking about mandatory diversity modules or narrowly defined curricular requirements and instead support disciplinary development of courses and incentivize departments to offer them every year. If universities cannot successfully teach their own students about slavery and racism in their schools’ and the nation’s history, they fail to live up to their most basic pedagogic commitments.

As the University of Virginia January 2021 course “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Designing America’s Difficult Past,” so effectively demonstrated, those classroom opportunities should likewise capitalize on this growing network of schools. In that interdisciplinary class, UVA students combined public history theory, empathetic practice, and design thinking as they worked with ten external university clients on rethinking and redesigning a space or place at another school. The resulting designs, completed in a two-week intensive course, were amazing. Scholars from other universities commented that the student designs were “really fantastic,” “their ideas smart and beautifully executed.” Even better, they added that “it was an honor to be a part” of such a powerful collaborative public educational project. It is not hard to imagine how this course answers the “what to do about it question.” The answer is simple: tap into the knowledge of scholars across institutions, put that knowledge to work in classrooms and in service of community-identified programs, and you can vastly expand the educational opportunities between and amongst them — Universities Studying Slavery is the perfect vehicle for doing just that.

Schools could reach students before they apply or enroll in their first course by funding summer camps for middle and high school students focused on sharing institutional histories of slavery and racism. These camps would encourage community engagement and civic leadership in the next generation of college students. Those camps could run every year, they could train and employ current university students as near-peer mentors and do real outreach to under-resourced schools nationwide. They could be run for both middle and high school-age students. Universities would offer substantial scholarships to students in need, ensuring equality of opportunity for all. Such a camp program already exists — UVA has run the Cornerstone Summer Institute for six years and has the data to demonstrate its effectiveness. It is a highly successful model that could easily be exported to dozens of other schools.

Finally, some of the universities studying slavery and racism in their institutional pasts also offer a powerful example of how to connect with descendant communities. Georgetown and UVA have had descendant outreach programs for years, William and Mary has also recently launched one and other schools are stepping gingerly into this space. It is difficult work that requires some level of commitment to reparative justice theory and practice, but it holds great promise. Bringing descendants of those harmed to the table as active participants in school projects engaging in truth-telling, rethinking built landscapes, and creating new interpretive exhibits offers opportunities for meaningful healing. What if this work were done in concert, connecting universities and communities in new ways and coordinating collaborative approaches to repair and redress?

Yes, creating repair for decades or centuries of enslavement and racism is hard, but the question of what to do about it need not be a perpetual roadblock to meaningful atonement, repair, and finding creative ways to achieve equity. Universities claim to be incubators for knowledge production and engaged citizenship — what more powerful way to demonstrate that than to charge fearlessly into the figurative breach, work together, and pilot repair programs? The work going on at individual universities, often driven by students and a few faculty, is already innovative. Launching scaled-up coordinated collective projects that connect many universities promises to be even more ground-breaking. This can happen while the pursuit of federal redress continues — it should not be an either/or situation. Perhaps the truly hard question to answer is not how to do it, but why universities have not yet fully committed to doing it together?

[1] Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, 2006, p. 4.

[2] Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (NY: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 11.

[3] For a few salient examples, see UVA’s “Great and Good 2030 Plan”; Clemson Forward Strategic Plan; The College of William and Mary Strategic Framework 2015–2020; and Georgetown University Strategic Positioning Statement



University Dean and Professor. Historian working in public on institutional truth-telling and reconciliation projects.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kirt von Daacke

University Dean and Professor. Historian working in public on institutional truth-telling and reconciliation projects.