Universities Studying Slavery (USS)–The Birth of a Movement


The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University in 2014, after conversations and consultation with members of our National Advisory Board who had participated in earlier institutional efforts at Brown University, Emory University, and the College of William and Mary, decided to create an organization that would effectively institutionalize and perpetuate that important cross-institutional learning in a more powerful way. To achieve that, the PCSU established “Virginia’s Colleges and Universities Studying Slavery (VCUSS),” a consortium dedicated to collaborative research on the historical relationship between Virginia’s colleges and universities.

This informal working group initially consisted of scholars representing the University of Virginia (PCSU), The College of William & Mary (The Lemon Project), Washington & Lee University, Sweet Briar College, and Roanoke College. The goal was to include any schools that have active research agendas addressing their specific relationships to slavery and/or their historical reliance on enslaved laborers to build and maintain their campuses.

The group, however, quickly expanded. As we reached out to other Virginia schools, it became clear that there was significant statewide interest.  The consortium rapidly grew to include many other colleges and universities in the state: Norfolk State University, Virginia Military Institute, Hampton University, Virginia Union University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia University Lynchburg, Longwood University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

In December 2015, Georgetown University’s recently formed slavery working group joined the consortium and we decided that there was a great opportunity here to reach well beyond Virginia’s boundaries while also creating a more formal collective. The group was expanded and renamed “Universities Studying Slavery,” and is now open to any school contemplating or already investigating its own history as it relates to slavery or racism.

We were excited to welcome the University of North Carolina, the University of Mississippi, Hollins University, Clemson University, Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia), the University of the South (Sewanee), and the University of South Carolina as new participating institutions in 2016.Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia) also joined in 2016 and points to the ultimate anticipated expansion of Universities Studying Slavery to include both schools from around the United States and Canada and institutions in England, Scotland, Europe, and perhaps even Africa. In 2017, both the University of Glasgow in Scotland and the University of Bristol in England cemented that trans-Atlantic expansion.

The growth of USS has continued. Rutgers University and Wake Forest University joined in early 2017. They were followed by Brown University (frankly the institution that inspired all of us to begin our work–they were the pioneers back in 2003), Furman University, Wesleyan College in Georgia, and Davidson College in North Carolina. By spring 2018, the consortium has grown to include forty schools in the United States, Canada, England, and Scotland, and more schools are planning on joining.

Universities Studying Slavery (USS) is dedicated to organizing multi-institutional collaboration as part of an effort to facilitate mutual support in the pursuit of common goals around the core theme of “Universities Studying Slavery.” USS additionally allows participating institutions to work together as they address both historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education and in university communities as well as the complicated legacies of slavery in modern American society. USS hosts semi-annual meetings to discuss strategies, collaborate on research, consider multi-institution systemic repair initiatives, and learn from one another.

This has now become an exciting opportunity to engage with ongoing efforts both nationwide and internationally. We welcome inquiries and participation from any interested higher education institution.

-Kirt von Daacke