Child Watch® Column:
Ugly Truths It’s Way Past Time for America to Face

Release Date: November 20, 2015

Marian Wright Edelman

On November 14, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia announced the university will rename two buildings on campus named for two 19th century Georgetown University presidents: Thomas F. Mulledy, who in 1838 arranged the sale of 272 slaves from Jesuit owned Maryland plantations and used the profit to pay Georgetown’s construction debts, and William McSherry, who also sold other Jesuit owned slaves and was Mulledy’s adviser. The sale ignored the objections of some Jesuit leaders who believed using the money to pay off debt was immoral and their demands that families be kept together.

Georgetown’s action followed a student sit in outside President DeGioia’s office but it was part of a longer ongoing process examining the university’s historical connections to slavery. The renaming was one step recommended by the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation established by the President this school year. Recently student protesters at Yale University repeated calls to rename its Calhoun College honoring slave owning Vice President and South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, already a subject of campus wide discussion. For years the college featured a stained glass window depicting Calhoun with a chained Black slave kneeling in front of him. After complaints the slave’s image was removed but Calhoun’s remains as does his shameful legacy that haunts our nation still. Georgetown and Yale are among the growing number of colleges and universities struggling to come to terms with their historical connections to slave owners, slave labor, and slave profits and the scars they leave on campuses and our nation today. What values do we want to hold up for our young as worthy of honor and emulation?

Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island was the first Ivy League university to move forward with a large scale investigation of its history under the leadership of former president Ruth Simmons. In 2003 she appointed a Committee on Slavery and Justice to learn more about Brown’s past ties to slavery and wealthy benefactors involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Brown family included slave owners and slave traders as well as at least two members who became active abolitionists. The committee learned 30 members of Brown’s governing board owned or captained slave ships and slave labor was used for some of the school’s construction.

Brown is far from alone. In his groundbreaking 2013 book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scholar Craig Steven Wilder documented many of these connections. In the book’s prologue he says: “In short, American colleges were not innocent or passive beneficiaries of conquest and colonial slavery . . . The academy never stood apart from American slavery—in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”

The nation’s oldest colleges depended on direct and indirect wealth from slavery and the slave trade. Slaves helped build many university buildings including some at Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. Students sometimes brought slaves to college to serve them, as George Washington’s stepson did when he attended King’s College in New York City, now Columbia University. Many university founders and early presidents owned personal slaves including Dartmouth, Harvard, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and more, and some colleges owned slaves. William and Mary, one of the slave owning colleges, produced one of the most awful stories Wilder shares—that of founding trustee Reverend Samuel Gray, who “murdered an enslaved child for running away”: “Rev. Gray struck the boy on the head, drawing blood, and then put a hot iron to the child’s flesh. The minister had the boy tied to a tree, and then ordered another slave to whip him. The boy later died. Gray argued that ‘such accidents’ were inevitable, a position that seems to have succeeded, as a court declined to convict him.”

Slave corpses were used in a number of the colleges’ medical and scientific experiments. In one of Wilder’s examples, Dartmouth College founder Eleazar Wheelock’s personal doctor arranged for a slave’s skeleton to be wired up for study and his skin tanned at the college shop and made into a cover for his instrument case. Ongoing university “research” throughout the nineteenth century bolstered many of the race-based claims used to support slavery.

Across our country this ugly and profoundly morally defective past is finally being brought into the light. Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice said: “We cannot change the past. But an institution can hold itself accountable for the past, accepting its burdens and responsibilities along with its benefits and privileges.” More universities and institutions must follow Brown’s example and engage in a thoughtful process of truth telling of their own and America’s history in order to lift the indefensible blot of slavery on America’s dream which plagues us still. College students, faculty, and administrators seeking an honest historical accounting on their campuses are to be applauded. Only the truth will make us free and move us forward together.

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Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Enlightened at: November 28, 2015
This was certainly new knowledge for me that I am compelled to share. Thank you so much! Consider this tweeted!

Submitted by Fed up at: November 23, 2015
Stop punishing people today for the actions and beliefs of those long ago. There will always be ignorance and differences in societies. But the majority of us don't share in those beliefs. Those that take on an injustice that happened long ago tend to make it their own, like it was done to them. They ignite others to do the same. And who do they blame??? Everyone else. No one alive today did any of those things, yet blame is cast. Focus needs to be applied and accountability for ones actions is virtually unheard of by people at the heart of this crap. If pointing fingers for actions of those long dead and jumping on the band wagon soap box is your answer to all, this world is doomed.

Submitted by Netta at: November 23, 2015
Thank you. There is an active movement to "white wash" the American slavery experience at the elementary, middle school, and high school level. Current text books out of Texas don't deny slavery happened but minimize and mislead children about our overall history. A history book reported that "African workers" came to the America to "work in the agricultural" industry. What do we (I) do to address these inaccuracies?

Submitted by oasis at: November 23, 2015
eye-opening and revelatory piece

Submitted by Anonymous at: November 21, 2015
Georgetown's actions are reprehensible.

Submitted by Patty at: November 21, 2015
My dear Marian Wright Edelman, Your comments are always clear, clean and kind. I was so glad to read it today after news of the disgraceful events in Washington. With much respect!

Submitted by Dr.B. at: November 21, 2015
I am deeply disappointed in this piece.We do not move forward by digging out every evil that was ever done,however long ago, All we do is increase the sense of victimization on one side, and the feeling of being persecuted for past events until we reach Adam and Eve. We all know that the Browns were slave traders, Jefferson and Washington owned slaves, etc. etc. So what do we do now: change the names of states, cities and universities, or just say Wow, another atrocity of the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries. Pretty soon we'll just be bearing an endless series of grudges, like Serbs and Croats. That's no way to move forward.

Submitted by Truthseeker at: November 21, 2015
"Only the truth will make us free" Amen

Submitted by joshuas grandma at: November 20, 2015
Finally it's good that this history is becoming known. If we don't know our history, we're doomed to repeat it.

Submitted by Dr Kerby Alvy at: November 20, 2015

Submitted by Anonymous at: November 20, 2015
It is great.