Davidson College apologized on Wednesday for supporting slavery during its first 30 years in the 19th century — and for what the college called “its embrace of the racist laws and policies” in subsequent decades.
The apology followed a two-year examination of the college’s ties to slavery and racist policies by a campus commission headed by Davidson grad Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation.
The apology by the private, liberal arts school near Charlotte comes amid a national reckoning of racial justice issues, and as other universities and institutions continue to grapple with their racist past.
In a video message with the report, Davidson College President Carol Quillen said: “We have much work to do to understand the pain and injury the college has caused, as well as to appreciate fully the strength, gifts and power of enslaved persons and our foundational indebtedness to them.”
In its report released Wednesday, the Davidson commission called on the college to implement a number of racial equity and justice initiatives, including changing the name of its iconic Chambers building at the center of campus.
Maxwell Chambers, the slave owner for whom the building is named, left $260,000 to the college when he died in 1855 — the largest donation at the time to an antebellum college in the South, according to the Davidson College Archives & Special Collections website. A Change.org petition this year to rename the building drew nearly 1,000 supporters.
The commission also urged more research and public education about the college’s historic ties to slavery. And the college should work to transform its culture “to better understand racism and exclusion,” according to the commission.
Davidson College apologized for supporting slavery in the 1800s and subsequent racist laws and policies. The North Carolina college will rename its Chambers building, now named for a slave owner.
SLAVERY AND OTHER RACIST LINKS
The report detailed a number of ties that the college had to slavery and racism, including:
▪ The 250,000 bricks used for the construction of the college’s first seven buildings in the mid-1830s were made by enslaved people from a nearby plantation. It is unclear if the laborers who built the structures included slaves.
▪ As the first students arrived in 1837, college President Robert Hall Morrison, the two faculty members and the business manager owned enslaved people.
▪ In fact, all college presidents through Drury Lacy (1855-1860) and many faculty members owned slaves.
▪ Although the college itself did not own slaves, it paid local slave owners for the labor of their enslaved people as servants on the campus. They were involved in building projects, maintenance and domestic labor.
▪ During the Civil War, faculty and students generally supported the Confederacy.
▪ Slave labor enabled the college to remain open during the war.
▪ After Reconstruction, the college “engaged in racial discrimination and segregation consistent with local practices during the Jim Crow era” between 1876 and 1962.
▪ Students staged mock lynchings.
▪ In the summer of 1959, crosses were burned on campus following the interaction of a white international student attending a workshop with a local Black resident.
Among more than a dozen “first steps” announced by the college in response to the report, a committee of Davidson’s Board of Trustees will consider a new name for the Chambers building and examine the naming of other key spaces. The college also announced:
▪ Anti-racism training for all faculty, staff and students.
▪ “Auditing” of admissions and hiring “through the lens of racial equity.”
▪ By 2022, joining with the Ada Jenkins Center in Davidson to expand its Freedom School summer reading and other programs for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. The community center serves a predominantly Black population.
▪ Hiring four tenure-track professors over the next four years for Davidson’s Africana Studies department.
Founded by Presbyterians in 1837, Davidson College admitted its first African student in 1961 and first American Black students in 1964.
It has 1,837 students now, 27% of whom are students of color from across the United States, according to the college’s website, Davidson.edu.
The decades following those first admissions saw “a series of other ‘firsts’ at the college, but also a recurring narrative from Black students of a campus culture that continued to exclude them in a host of ways,” according to a statement released by the college Wednesday.
‘THE SKELETON IN THE CLOSET’
In an interview with the Observer, Foxx said the committee’s most important goal was “just disclosure and people coming to grips with what happened. There isn’t an institution in this country that hasn’t been touched by slavery.”
But for too long that past has remained “the skeleton in the closet of this country,” he said.
As for Davidson College, he said, he was most surprised to learn even the most basic facts of the school’s ties to slavery.
Anthony Foxx, former U.S. transportation secretary, former Charlotte mayor and a 1993 Davidson College graduate, led a Davidson College commission that examined the college’s 19th-century support of slavery and resulting racist policies.
For instance, while it’s still unknown if the school owned slaves, Foxx said, “slave labor was absolutely present on the campus in that era, and one of its benefactors owned slaves.” The college must work to identify and recognize those laborers and their families, Foxx said.
Foxx, who graduated in 1993, was the first Black student elected student body president.
On a personal level, Foxx told the Observer, his second-great-grandfather, James Kelly, was a slave on a plantation in Carthage, north of Pinehurst in Eastern North Carolina. Alexander Kelly, who owned the plantation, was an elder in the Presbyterian church and a member of the Davidson College Board of Trustees, Foxx said.
Foxx is a member of that same board, which unanimously supported the commission’s report.
“Davidson’s foundational values include a loyalty to all of humanity,” Alison Hall Mauzé, chair of the college’s board of trustees, said in the statement. “Today we are holding ourselves accountable for not wholly living up to those values during a significant part of our history.”
CHARLOTTESVILLE, AND BEYOND
Quillen announced the formation of the commission in fall 2017, following a white supremacy rally and counterprotests at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville that turned deadly.
“The recent events in Charlottesville bore witness to hate that is propagated by those who threaten our collective public life and is antithetical to Davidson’s values and our nation’s promise,” Quillen said at the time, The Charlotte Observer reported.
“We have a responsibility as a liberal arts college to demonstrate the crucial value of scholarly inquiry to public life and to fulfilling this country’s promise,” Quillen said.
Davidson’s announcement on Wednesday followed similar apologies by universities in recent months and years.
In February, Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch apologized for the school’s historical connection with slavery, the Winston-Salem Journal reported.
And U.Va. recently completed a Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, the Washington Post reported. It honors the 4,000 or more enslaved people who built and maintained the university founded by Thomas Jefferson.
In 2018, then-UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt issued a public apology for the university’s connections to slavery and injustice to African Americans.
Also that year, Salem Academy and College in Winston-Salem apologized for its role in slavery. Georgetown University and the College of William and Mary had previously issued similar apologies, the Winston-Salem Journal reported.
And last month, Charlotte-based Truist, the sixth-largest commercial bank in the United States, apologized for and denounced its predecessor banks’ roles in slavery, the Observer previously reported.
To read the full "Report to President Carol Quillen from the Commission on Race and Slavery," click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.
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Information taken from:
Charlotte Observer - "Davidson College apologizes for supporting slavery. 'We have much work to do.'" by Joe Marusak, August 19, 2020.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass