Student research spurs a reevaluation.
During the 2017–18 academic year, a small group of Penn undergraduates plunged into the University Archives, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society, and other repositories of historical documents, hoping to answer a question pertinent to any North American institution as old as Penn: What role, if any, did slavery play in the University’s development?
The question had been posed before, but previous attempts at a clear answer had a way of foundering in the face of complexities embodied by the University’s very founder. It is inarguable that Ben Franklin owned slaves and benefited from slave labor. It is likewise a matter of record that he became a leading abolitionist and served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Each fact qualifies and complicates the other.
Penn dates its founding to 1740: 125 years before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. Yet the University has typically framed its history without reference to slavery. “Penn has explored this issue several times over the past few decades,” said University spokesman Ron Ozio in a 2016 statement to the Philadelphia Tribune, “and found no direct university involvement with slavery or the slave trade.”
In the wake of last year’s student-led research, conducted under the auspices of an Independent Study project led by Kathleen Brown, the David Boies Professor of History, the University has amended its official stance somewhat.
“We now know,” said Penn President Amy Gutmann in a public statement issued on June 28, 2018, “that no fewer than 75 of the University’s early trustees owned at least one enslaved person, including Penn’s first provost, William Smith. For 13 years, from 1757 to 1770, the University’s trustees reimbursed Ebenezer Kinnersley, Penn’s first professor of English and oratory who also was a dormitory steward, for the work of an enslaved man that he owned. In this and other ways, the labor of enslaved people was used to support and care for Penn faculty and students.”
Gutmann added that “Penn faculty and alumni were actively involved in framing the Constitution to support slavery and in administering state slavery laws,” and noted that “alumnus and professor of mathematics Hugh Williamson was instrumental in arguing for the insertion of the three-fifths clause into the US Constitution, which counted enslaved persons as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of Congressional representation.”
The statement (which can be found at tinyurl.com/pennslavery) drew from the students’ work, reinforced by additional research conducted by a faculty working group led by Provost Wendell Pritchett Gr’97.
Brown—who was also part of the faculty working group—said she was not particularly surprised by what the students discovered. “I didn’t know for sure what we’d find—and I didn’t oversell it to the students,” she told the Gazette. “But, I did know that, the way I understand slavery, there really wouldn’t have been any pockets of life in the North American colonies that were not touched by slavery in one way or another.”
What surprised her students, she reflected, was “how easy it was to find more information on trustees who either owned slaves or were pretty actively connected to the slave trade.”
VanJessica Gladney C’18 called the experience “heartbreaking and infuriating and uplifting and empowering, all at once,” in an essay for the Daily Pennsylvanian’s 34th Street magazine. “I understood that these men gained their wealth by taking it from others, but their wealth funded and founded a university I am very proud to attend.”
Though Brown professed no surprise at the findings, she suggested that the complexity of the feelings they have sparked attests to the value of the endeavor.
“We have a conversation about race and slavery that is not finished,” she reflected. “In some ways we haven’t even gotten to the hard bits yet. This pushes that conversation down the road. And one of the ways it does so is by making it very clear that even those entities that somehow imagined that they were less complicit in slavery—or were accumulating capital and prestige yet somehow weren’t exploiting the labor of enslaved people to do it, directly—that even those institutions were intertwined in the institution of slavery.”
It is also a corrective, she added, to the notion that slavery’s legacy is a burden for the South alone to shoulder. “Regardless of which side different places ended up in the Civil War,” Brown noted, “there was a connectedness of the histories and fates, and the circulation of money and benefits” deriving from enslaved people.
In Gutmann’s turn of phrase: “This was a profoundly painful and odious part of our nation’s history. No segment of American society or institution founded during the 18th century, including the University of Pennsylvania, escaped its scourge. Far from it.” —TP