According to the surviving records, the first enslaved African in Massachusetts was the property of the schoolmaster of Harvard. Yale funded its first graduate-level courses and its first scholarship with the rents from a small slave plantation it owned in Rhode Island (the estate, in a stroke of historical irony, was named Whitehall). The scholarship’s first recipient went on to found Dartmouth, and a later grantee co-founded the College of New Jersey, known today as Princeton. Georgetown’s founders, prohibited by the rules of their faith from charging students tuition, planned to underwrite school operations in large part with slave sales and plantation profits, to which there was apparently no ecclesiastical objection. Columbia, when it was still King’s College, subsidized slave traders with below-market loans. Before she gained fame as a preacher and abolitionist, Sojourner Truth was owned by the family of Rutgers’s first president.
From their very beginnings, the American university and American slavery have been intertwined, but only recently are we beginning to understand how deeply. In part, this can be attributed to an expansion of political will. Barely two decades ago, questions raised by a group of scholars and activists about Brown University’s historic connection to slavery were met with what its then-president, Ruth Simmons, saw as insufficient answers, and so she appointed the first major university investigation. Not long before that, one of the earliest scholars to independently look into his university’s ties to slavery, a law professor at the University of Alabama, began digging through the archives in part to dispel a local myth, he wrote, that “blacks were not present on the campus” before 1963, when “Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled with the help of Nicholas Katzenbach and the National Guard.” He found, instead, that they preceded its earliest students, and one of the university’s first acts was the purchase of an enslaved man named Ben. In Virginia, a small consortium founded three years ago to share findings and methods has expanded to include nearly three dozen colleges and universities across North America and two in European port cities. Almost all of these projects trace their origins to protests or undergraduate classes, where a generation of students, faculty, archivists, activists, and librarians created forums for articulating their questions, and for finding one another.