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Rutgers, Penn take steps to confront ties to slavery on their campuses

Susan Snyder, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA —As part of continued racial reckoning, Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania are taking steps to educate the public about ties to slavery on their campuses.

Rutgers said Tuesday it plans to erect four historical markers on its New Brunswick, New Jersey, campus that show how the university’s earliest benefactors, including the university’s first president, Jacob Rutsen Hardenbergh, and New Jersey’s first governor, William Livingston, built their fortunes through slavery.

“These markers are an invitation for us to talk about the complicated legacies of namesakes and the complicated ways in which blood money from slavery is woven into old institutions like Rutgers,” President Jonathan Holloway said in a statement before presenting the plan to the board of trustees.

Holloway, who is the first African American president in Rutgers’ 254-year history and author of a book that examines Black history, said the new markers will help Rutgers confront its past while looking for ways to move forward.

“History is often troubling,” he told the board. “But I think mature institutions who are confident in who they are in the present can handle and withstand telling stories about their past.”

The effort comes as more colleges around the country are recognizing their painful pasts, a movement underway even before the police killings of Black people last year brought an outcry for racial justice and the pandemic pointed to disturbing racial inequalities.

 

At Penn, a team of students, staff and a professor last week unveiled an augmented reality app that allows people anywhere in the world to visit six sites on campus and learn more about the university’s ties to slavery. At one point, users hear 2015 Penn graduate Breanna Moore recount how her ancestors were enslaved by a Penn medical school alum and how African Americans’ lives over centuries have continued to be detrimentally affected by slavery. It took two centuries for someone from her lineage to attend an Ivy League institution, she points out.

“We’re at a 200-plus year deficit and to get anything close to what resembles an even playing field is going to require larger efforts to implement reparatory justice initiatives,” she said during a Zoom webinar last week where the app was discussed.

Moore is part of the Penn & Slavery Project, a student team that has been working since 2017 to illuminate how Penn benefited financially from and contributed to slavery. Another stop highlighted on the app shows how 10 of Penn’s 39 residential houses in the quadrangle are named for slave owners and how the university received donations from slave owners. Others tell the histories of the first African American medical practitioner educated at Penn and an enslaved person named Caesar who worked on the campus. And another discusses Penn medical school’s historic ties to scientific racism.

Penn provost Wendell Pritchett, who attended the meeting, praised the work of the students.

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