Please Welcome the University of Delaware as the Newest Member of Universities Studying Slavery (USS)!

Universities Studying Slavery (USS) continues to work closely with a number of schools who are in the process of joining the consortium or are in the early stages of launching truth-telling programs that are committed to engendering significant climate change at the twenty-first century university. As always, we are heartened to see so many new schools diving into this work and honored to help. Yet other schools connect with us after creating a robust anti-racism and/or truth-telling initiative. Today, the University of Delaware, almost a year into their expansive project, has joined the USS movement!

The University of Delaware is committed to researching the institution’s historical ties to slavery and to the legacies of slavery—including segregation and racism—through its Anti-Racism Initiative. That new program includes a subcommittee dedicated to understanding the Legacies of Enslavement and Dispossession at UD. UD recognizes that research universities play a major role in fostering ongoing social change in society and must take the lead in ensuring that we have a fair and equitable society free of racial injustices and racism.

In Summer 2020, in response to continuing protests against systemic and structural racism throughout the country, faculty, staff, and students at the University of Delaware created a grassroots UD Anti-Racism Initiative (UDARI) to help reduce racial disparities on campus and in the larger community. The co-chairs of this initiative are KC Morrison, Professor of Public Policy of the Biden Institute, Alison Parker, Richards Professor of American History and Department of History Chair, and Lynnette Overby, Professor of Theatre and Deputy Director of the Community Engagement Initiative. Over 350 faculty, staff, and students have joined and created more than twenty subcommittees.

In October 2020, President Assanis appointed UD’s Interim Chief Diversity Officer, Fatimah Conley. Highlighting diversity, equity, and inclusion as key goals and values that UD is committed to achieve, he stated: “During this time when our nation is confronting challenges in pursuit of equity and social and racial justice, there is an urgency for action. Even under the current circumstances of constrained resources, our commitment to the progress and advancement of inclusive excellence throughout the University of Delaware must remain steadfast. Our success will rely on strategic and innovative use of the resources UD is investing and maximize effectiveness.”

The Legacies of Enslavement and Dispossession at UD subcommittee is leading the effort of the University to reflect on how it has benefited from and shaped racial inequality in the state. Today, a prospective University of Delaware student on a campus tour, or a new faculty member at orientation, would learn little, if anything, about UD’s ties to slavery and land dispossession. The brief history on the University of Delaware’s website, for instance, charts the institution’s major milestones: its beginnings in Francis Allison’s academy in 1743; its continuation as Newark College and then Delaware College in the 1830s and 1840s; its designation as a land-grant institution in 1867; the admission of women in 1914; and its transformation into the University of Delaware in 1921. The current website timeline notes that enrollment and academic programs have expanded since 1950, but it does not mention the significance of that year, when a lawsuit, Parker v. University of Delaware, forced the university’s desegregation after a suit brought by Louis Redding on behalf of ten Black prospective students. UD’s public-facing history does not contextualize its roots in the colonial and antebellum eras, when some of its trustees had ties to the institutions of slavery and indentured servitude. Nor does it note that UD sits on what was Lenape lands or that its designation as a land-grant institution as part of the first Morrill Act was based on the sale of 90,000 acres of land in the Midwest and West connected to the Osage, Chippewa, among many others, that had been seized by the United States in 1855 by treaty and/or executive order. UD’s history is also rooted in the second Morrill Act of 1891, which dictated that Newark College, as a whites-only institution, could maintain its land-grant status only if a separate institution for Black students was established, leading to the founding of Delaware State College for Colored Students.

Thus far, from summer 2020 through summer 2021, 21 undergraduates and 2 graduate students have worked or are currently working on uncovering UD’s history. In the Fall 2021, UD will involve even more students in this research via its newly approved cross-listed and team-taught undergraduate/graduate research course, cross-listed in six different departments, titled Race and Inequality in Delaware. This course that will allow students to do their own research projects, focusing this fall on the University’s ties to slaveholders who founded the university and/or sold their land to UD.

The Legacies of Enslavement and Dispossession at UD subcommittee is also committed to revealing how African Americans were always connected to UD’s past, even before they won their battle to be admitted as students: as enslaved, indentured, or free laborers, they worked and lived on the farms that were acquired to build Delaware College; they worked on campus as servants employed by Delaware College; and they served as campus employees during the Jim Crow era, living in Newark’s historically-black neighborhoods while working for a university they and their children could not attend. UD will identify these African American historical actors and tell their stories as foundational to the University of Delaware and Newark community.

Since 1950, African American students, staff, and faculty at UD have built curricula, programs, campus organizations, and community initiatives, accelerated by the activism of the Black Student Union in 1968, which led to the creation of the Black American Studies program in 1971 and the Minority Center in 1976 (which became the Center for Black Culture in 1985). In recent decades, the percentage of Black students on campus has declined, while racist incidents on campus have persisted, leading the Delaware NAACP in 2015 and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in its last re-accreditation report to call for greater action by the University to address these issues.

UDARI, and specifically its subcommittee on the Legacies of Enslavement and Dispossession, is helping the University achieve its goal of prioritizing racial justice and antiracism work and research. Formally joining the Universities Studying Slavery consortium is a part of that mission. Please welcome the University of Delaware Anti-Racism Initiative (UDARI) team to our growing movement of schools coming to terms with difficult pasts and committing to creating a more inclusive present and future.