Please Welcome Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, to Universities Studying Slavery!

Universities Studying Slavery (USS) headquarters here at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville is once again all smiles. We absolutely love learning about the great programs running at institutions across the United States and far beyond. In the last few years, the state of Texas has emerged as the latest hot spot, with so many schools embarking on the important educational work of coming to terms with institutional history. We have had the honor of watching all those schools creatively approach the projects and have at times been proud to offer consultation and advice. Either way, we are simply happy to see schools engage in these projects. Southwestern officially joined in February of this year, but today, we welcome Southwestern University to the movement and share with you details about the school’s present, past, and project.

Southwestern University, a liberal arts college in Georgetown, Texas (just north of Austin), is one of the most racially diverse liberal arts colleges in the country, but maintains a durably white orientation and culture. The Southwestern Racial History Project was initiated in 2020 as a necessary reckoning towards de-centering whiteness. Started with internal funding that supports faculty-student collaborative research especially targeted to first generation and under-represented students, the project works towards creating a more inclusive campus culture in which all students, faculty and staff can feel like they belong. The project began by asking how mid-nineteenth century racial formations and racial capitalism on the Texas frontier shaped the development of the four root colleges that eventually resulted in the chartering and incorporation of Southwestern in 1875. As the oldest university in Texas, the institution’s history is tightly intertwined with white settler colonialism and plantation slavery. The team working on the project is also involved in other institutional efforts towards diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

Findings from the first research session show the dependency of institutional funding on European descended men and women’s ownership and exploitation of enslaved men and women of African descent. Furthermore, the ideal faculty, staff, and student for whom these institutions were designed reflected a European descended owner of enslaved African-descended people. Additionally, white Methodist settlers built these colleges on lands previously used by indigenous peoples and/or otherwise claimed by Mexico. Many early patrons and others associated with these institutions played direct roles in the killing and forced removal of Indians and in recurring battles against Mexico that developed anti-Mexican sentiment for many of them. Other individuals central to the root colleges and Southwestern itself comprised the most ardent supporters of the Southern Methodist Church, which separated itself from the Northern church and aligned itself with plantation slavery and ownership of enslaved people of African descent. In addition, many of the students and alumni of these institutions enlisted in and rose to leadership positions in the Confederate Army. Southwestern was thus directly involved in the white supremacist creation and consolidation of racial categorization (white, Black, Indian, Mexican, etc.).

The Southwestern Racial History Project has also begun a critical review of how the institutions were administered and the curricula employed, documenting how scientific racism and assumptions about racial hierarchies and white supremacy were woven into the fabric of these institutions. In the summer of 2021, a new team of students came on and built upon the first years’ findings. Dr. Johnson and each student chose one limited project to investigate. These projects included:

  1. How blackness appeared only as something comedic or inferior in documents of Southwestern’s early history.
  2. The University’s close involvement with the 1916 erection of the local courthouse’s confederate monument.
  3. Biographies of the first Latinx students at Southwestern.
  4. The representation of Blackness in student publications when SU first integrated in the mid 1960s.
  5. A racial critique of Francis Asbury Mood, a heralded founding figure in Southwestern’s history.
  6. Documentation of the stories of Black faculty and staff in the beginning of the 21st

To date, Southwestern’s findings produced two years of student presentations on campus, including a faculty-student presentation serving as the centerpiece of the school’s annual Race and Ethnicity Studies Symposium in January 2021. On the national scene, Dr. Johnson and students from both years of research constituted a panel of presentations at the Race Ethnicity and Place Conference run by American Association of Geographers in Baltimore in 2021. Students and faculty involved in the project routinely share findings in courses across campus and in other research presentation venues on campus.

The Southwestern University team plans both academic and popular publications as well as making its findings digitally available in the future. In all of these endeavors, they work to foster ways for the campus community to think about and reflect on this history; but also ensure they do this in ways that promote racial justice and de-center whiteness. Indeed, students of color who worked on the project see the clear continuities between past racist atrocities and today’s cultural ‘norm’ for white students, staff and faculty at Southwestern. Southwestern’s current president has identified the SU Racial History Project as one worth supporting in the future. In Summer 2022, the third year of the program, a new faculty member, Dr. Naomi Reed, is joining the project and will continue work with three more students who will participate in the project. Dr. Reed will also begin teaching a regularly offered course based on the project in Fall 2022.

Keep your eyes on Southwestern University—we can’t wait to hear of their latest findings, new programs, and exciting new learning opportunities both inside and outside the classroom.