Colombia’s Universidad del Rosario Joins and Universities Studying Slavery (USS) Expands into South America

In early 2016, Universities Studying Slavery (USS) was born out of the transformation of an informal working group in one state—“Virginia Colleges & Universities Studying Slavery”—with a new formalization of the membership process as we welcomed Georgetown University to the consortium. We hoped that with that change, other schools would similarly commit to engaging in investigations of their own pasts. Little did we know then how successful those changes would be. In 2022, USS includes over eighty schools (secondary schools, community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities) in five countries. Schools in the United States, Canada, Ireland, England, and Scotland all have projects running. That’s truly a sign of how the movement has grown and how important USS has been both to encouraging the growth and to facilitating the important conversations about how to do this work.

Today, we are thrilled to announce that this movement has now expanded to include its first institution in South America. Please welcome The University of Rosario (Universidad del Rosario, known officially as the Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario) in Colombia as the newest member of Universities Studying Slavery.

The Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario – founded in 1653 – was one of the first Universities in colonial New Granada, and it has remained, up until today, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in Colombia. Unsurprisingly, the Historical Archive of the University is extremely valuable: it contains thousands of original documents – both manuscripts and printed texts – that can help us to gain a better understanding of the socio-cultural processes that have marked the history of the nation.

Yet, these documents have been mainly used, so far, to write celebratory institutional histories, that generally lack a critical perspective. Most publications based on research conducted in the Archivo historico have tended to overlook, for example, the various forms of social exclusions – linked to class, ethnicity and gender – that have characterized both the history of the country and that of the university.

The University of Rosario project – which started in June 2021 – aims at examining in detail and critically some of the available archival documents, in order to reflect upon the various ways in which ethnic/racial domination has played a central part in the history of the University. In doing so, two main issues arise. On the one hand, the Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario has benefited – from its very Foundation in the seventeenth century until the nineteenth century – from the labor, products, and profits of enslavement (as well as other forms of unfree labor involving the exploitation of indigenous groups). On the other hand, the University was explicitly designed to educate the descendants of the Conquistadores, requiring all students to demonstrate their limpieza de sangre, literally the “cleanliness of blood” or “blood purity,” and thus uphold the Spanish system of discrimination that elevated those of Spanish ancestry or “blood” above all others.

The University of Rosario hopes that the project— which involves both research and public history— will enable the school to highlight the workings of racial oppression in Colonial and early-Republican Colombian history. They also hope that it will provide an insight into the experiences of the victims of that history, including both people of African descent affected by the transatlantic trade and indigenous groups, whose lives were profoundly disrupted by the colonization of their land that followed the Conquista. The University of Rosario thinks that it is high time for Latin American universities to acknowledge the place of subaltern groups in their histories. Such a recognition would undoubtedly representant an important step in the process to eliminate the backlog of racial discrimination that persists within many institutions of higher education in the region.

We here at Universities Studying Slavery headquarters welcome the University of Rosario team to the consortium and look forward to learning more about their important work!