Founded On Slavery: How Does Higher Education Make Amends?

Oct 10, 2019

Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati are studying how its institutions were built on slavery. Higher education representatives from across the country are in Cincinnati this week for "The Academy's Original Sin," a conference exploring the past and present racial inequities in higher education that date back to slavery. Enslavers founded both Xavier and UC, which are hosting the conference.

Nationally, schools have been reflecting on slavery and how to make amends. This year marks 400 years since enslaved people were brought to America. Since then, conversations have continued about if African Americans should get reparations.

Charles McMicken is a name plastered on UC's College of Arts and Sciences building and street signs.

University Archivist Kevin Grace says for the past 40 years since he's been at UC, students have asked, " 'Why are we celebrating the founder of the university when he was a racist?' " he says. "We had a very simplistic view of this. It was usually based by the students and by us on Charles McMicken's will."

Grace says it wasn't until recently that students wouldn't let the question go unanswered. McMicken's desire for a segregated school and role as an enslaver came to the forefront because of the students' demand, which became a city-wide conversation. 

UC officials say they're still trying to figure out what path they'll take.

Both schools' founders enslaved people in the 1800s and are working to include the history in different ways.

A concern that was raised during a session is the various amount of education and understanding people have of slavery.

"There needs to be an in-depth awareness for the masses because we are not aware," says Cincinnati native Sybil Sanders McDowell, who is a descendant of slaves from Louisiana.

Xavier has three strategies to continue reconciliation.

For the next two years they'll have a day where the university educates, reflects and has discernment over its history. They're expanding research of Xavier history and will re-write the university's narrative, including offering grants to students, faculty and staff to conduct their own research and projects. Xavier is also putting resources and energy into creating a different future through a nontraditional study abroad experience that promotes racial healing.  

Their research so far shows some of Xavier's first students came from slave-holding families. Founder Bishop Edward Fenwick also enslaved people in Kentucky.

Xavier President Father Michael Graham says after hearing about the history of Georgetown University, he asked Historian Walker Gallagher what Xavier's relationship to slavery is.

Now that they're doing the work, Graham says they must continuously pay attention. "Where you're trying to shift culture, it needs constant attention in an ongoing way because there are so many forces working against it," he says. 

Gollar says since releasing the information, some students think Xavier founder Bishop Edward Fenwick's name should be removed from buildings. "It’s a little bit more complicated than that," he says. "Whether it be the University of Cincinnati or Xavier University, it's our job to dig deeply into the history and see, how can that history lay out a roadmap for how we might move forward?" Gollar says he recognizes the university probably wouldn't exist without slavery.

Xavier officials say they'll continue to broaden their research about the repercussions of slavery and encourage their stakeholders to do the same.