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British and American universities come face-to-face with their racist past

  • 13 May 2019

The University of Cambridge will conduct a two-year academic study into how it benefited from the Atlantic slave trade. It is the latest turn in the ongoing debate over how institutions should face their demons.

Cambridge University is among several institutions owning up to their questionable past dealings. ( Reuters )

Over the past decade, British and American universities have been digging into their historical ties to slavery.

Most have sought to ‘atone’ for their past through special programmes and research projects.

From the 16th to the mid-19th century, around 13 million Africans were forced onto slave ships that were mainly headed to Portugal, Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands and the US. Most of them died during the perilous journey.

Captives being brought on board a slave ship on the West Coast of Africa.(Getty Images)

Discussions on institutional racism have intensified on campuses since protests began at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015.

Protesters contested a statue that commemorates colonial icon Cecil John Rhodes, which served as a symbolic focal point for a much larger debate. 

The #RhodesMustFall protests eventually turned into a mass movement, sweeping across South Africa and reaching Oriel College at the University of Oxford. 

Here are some universities which have had similar awakenings:

University of Oxford

Protests that began at the university’s Oriel College were inspired by the student movement at the University of Cape Town.

Students created the #RhodesMustFall Oxford movement, also putting the Rhodes statue at the heart of their call for decolonisation.

Despite widespread student demands to remove it, the university administration refused.

University of Cambridge

The university removed a historic bell over fears it came from a slave plantation after it announced a two-year investigation into its own links with the Atlantic slave trade.

The Demerara bell was donated to St Catharine’s College in 1958 by alumnus and industrialist Edward Goodland, who went to work for a sugar company in British Guiana, now Guyana.

“We are aware that a bell currently located at the college most likely came from a slave plantation,” a St Catharine’s spokesman said.

“A more detailed investigation is underway into the bell’s provenance as part of a wider project researching the college’s historical links to the slave trade.” 

Georgetown University

Georgetown University acknowledged that it sold 272 men, women and children owned by Jesuit priests in Louisiana to pay off the institution’s debt.

The university formally apologised to the descendants of the 272 slaves in 2016 following a 104-page report from a working group of students and faculty members.

“Today, the society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly sinned, in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done, and what we have failed to do,” said Reverend Tim Kesicki, President of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.

“We are profoundly sorry. It is our very enslavement of another, our very ownership of another, which culminated in the tragic sale of 272 women, men and children that remains with us to this day, trapping us in a historic truth for which we implore mercy and justice, hope and healing,” he added.

The university administration also decided to rename two campus buildings that honoured former university presidents involved in the sales.

What’s more, a majority of students approved a reparations fund to help descendants of enslaved people in the 19th Century in a referendum drafted last month.

Harvard University

In 2016, Harvard University decided to replace the word “master” in their residential college housing systems with “faculty dean”.

 In 2011, a booklet launched by the Harvard and Slavery Research Project reported that three Harvard presidents owned slaves who worked on campus in the early 17th Century. It also found that the college received donations from slavery-related wealth until the civil war.

 However, the university administration has not acknowledged any direct connection between the term ‘house master’ and the institution of slavery.

 Academics say that the word is derived from the Latin term ‘magister’, which addresses scholars or teachers, but critics argue that it is a connotation for slavery.   

Princeton University

Last year, Princeton announced that it would name two campus spaces in honour of enslaved people who lived or worked on its campus following research into its historical connections with slavery.

The university came under criticism in 2015 after it declined to remove former Princeton president Woodrow Wilson’s name from its prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. 

Wilson, who led the university for eight years and then the White House, prevented black students from enrolling at the university and supported the resegregation of federal departments during his time as president.

University of Bristol

The university this year ordered a new investigation into its historical links to slavery two years after it refused to change the name of its Wills Memorial Building, which honours its first chancellor, whose family profited from tobacco farming using slaves. 

Last year, the university conceded that 85 percent of the fund used to found the university depended on slave labour.

The university still continues to explore its past, along with other universities. 

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