It is September 2023, and we know that the over one hundred Universities Studying Slavery (USS) schools spread across the Atlantic Basin have returned to fall classes as the new academic year kicks off. Here at USS headquarters in Charlottesville, we are catching up on several announcements that were in development over the summer. We love sharing good news and are thrilled to announce that the University of Pennsylvania has joined the consortium, connecting their project to the work ongoing at dozens of other colleges and universities.
The Penn and Slavery Project began with the research of five students during the fall semester of 2017 under the supervision of Professor Kathleen Brown. Students investigated the claims of the University of Pennsylvania that it was unique among institutions of higher education in not being complicit in slavery. Examinations of the personal and financial papers of the university’s eighteenth-century faculty and trustees revealed that a provost, a faculty member, and nearly a dozen trustees all owned and benefitted from the labor of enslaved people. At least one of these enslaved individuals, Caesar, provided unremunerated labor for the university during the 1760s. The Penn and Slavery Project’s work represents just one more powerful reminder that the American “academy never stood apart from slavery—in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built upon bondage” (Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, p. 11).
Subsequent project research led students to investigate Penn’s medical school, the first in North America and an important educational resource for white southerners until the Civil War. Several prominent racist scientists benefitted from their affiliations with Penn, including the craniologist Samuel Morton, doctor and founder of multiple medical schools, Charles Caldwell, and the racist theorist Josiah Nott. Their work influenced both medical theories about race and medical practice. A number of prominent Penn medical faculty taught and published racist scientific and medical theories about the physical suitability of African-descended people for slavery and the superiority of Anglo-Saxons or Caucasians, with the latter term becoming a key word in the racist science of the period.
Since 2017, students have continued to pursue research on the slave trafficking activities of early trustees, Penn’s impact on free Black lives in the city of Philadelphia, and the subsequent careers of white medical students who returned to the South. A spin-off course from the Penn and Slavery Project research seminar, titled “Free State Slavery and Bound Labor” and co-taught by Professors Kathleen Brown and Sarah B. Gordon, trains students to excavate the stories of Black people technically freed from slavery by Pennsylvania’s 1780 gradual abolition statute but often caught up in extended terms of service or pursued as fugitive slaves by putative “owners.”
In response to student research, then President Amy Guttman issued a revised statement about the university’s relationship to slavery and charged the Provost with creating a faculty working group to study that relationship. Provostial funding supported a post-doctoral fellow and sustained the project’s website, created by student researcher, public history fellow, and current doctoral candidate VanJessica Gladney.
Provostial funding also supported a student-managed and student-created digital humanities “exhibit” of student research. During 2019-2021, a small group of students teamed up with technical experts in digital humanities from Penn Libraries to produce an Augmented Reality application (“app”) detailing student research from the project. The app takes the form of a six-stop campus tour that can be accessed on campus or from any off-campus location. App users can learn more about how to download and use the app on the project’s website. Penn’s student-led study of slavery and its student-created AR app are unique and dynamic responses to historical inquiries into university connections to slavery. The P&SP AR “exhibit” of student research is a useful tool for teaching current members of the Penn community, residents of Philadelphia, and campus visitors how to grapple with difficult histories.
All of that fine work by students and scholars at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn and Slavery Project dovetails nicely with similar ongoing projects at other universities. We are thrilled to see schools creating walking tours and using twenty-first century technology to make these new and expanded histories not only more publicly available and accessible, but also more intelligible to a broader public often learning for the first time about slavery and racism in university histories. Please take time to check out the project and we know we speak for all USS members, but we look forward to future learning and collaboration. Please welcome the University of Pennsylvania to the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) family.