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Wash U Explores Its History And Relation To Slavery In New Project

Two students walk down the long stairwell in front of Brookings Administration Building at Washington University in St. Louis. (photo taken March 19, 2020)
File photo / Bill Greenblatt
Washington University is the latest school to explore how its institution played a role in slavery and its lasting legacy.

Washington University’s most known connection to slavery revolved around a staunch abolitionist — its co-founder William Greenleaf Eliot Jr.

Now university scholars and students are diving head first into an effort to uncover more of its history and the role it may have played in the institution of slavery.

Geoff Ward, Wash U professor of African and African American studies, is leading the effort based out of the university’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity. He said this initiative is an opportunity to face complex institutional history and counter what he calls “motivated ignorance” of structural racism that’s cemented itself in all parts of society.

“We're having a counter to what has been generations of looking away from the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and settler colonialism and so forth,” Ward said. “Because we're as a society increasingly inclined to acknowledge that this past remains present.”

Although the initiative is in its early stages, Ward said foundational research has already revealed some connections between the university and the institution of slavery — including the fact that enslaved people were exploited on farmland where the Danforth campus now sits.

Washington University is the latest school in the region to explore its institution’s history and lasting legacy of slavery. In 2016, St. Louis University began its own project called Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation in collaboration with the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. That project revealed that Jesuits owned enslaved people at St. Louis University.

Both Wash U and SLU joined a consortium of 80 universities through an effort called Universities Studying Slavery. Wash U’s initiative will focus its efforts through research and new hands-on courses for students, as well as workshops.

Student involvement will be a key component to the overall initiative. History professor Iver Bernstein and Carl Craver, professor of philosophy and philosophy-neuroscience-psychology, are co-teaching a new course, “Rethinking Wash U’s Relation to Enslavement: Past, Present, Future” for first-year students as part of the initiative.

Craver said the university had struggled to find ways to include undergraduate students in research projects in the humanities. Their course changes that.

“The archives are sitting full of material that is directly relevant to an issue that these students are burning to learn more about,” Craver said. “And [we] realized that we can harness the considerable energy of these students for the purposes of getting them to think about what the university is. What its place is in St. Louis. What its role has been historically. And what its possibilities can be into the future.”

The yearlong course, which starts in the fall, will be a student-led research project. Craver said students will be tasked with digging deep into the archives and challenging preexisting knowledge with new questions and the goal of uncovering new information.

“It’s one thing to read somebody else’s history, but it’s another thing entirely to find yourself involved in the kind of detective work and digging that historians do,” Craver said. “It has a truly transformative effect on the way that people think about this past.”

While the research will be heavy and a “minefield” at times, Bernstein said he wants his students’ research to be rooted in truth and integrity.

“We hope to humanize and bring to life the world of the African American experience in both its most traumatic and also its most self-actualizing and transformative dimension,” Bernstein said.

Beyond Wash U, Ward hopes the collected research will add to the larger discussion of racial reckonings in the region.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.