“All men are created equal” is one of the most frequently quoted lines in American history. It rang through as a hollow promise to many in the years following its proclamation in the Declaration of Independence. A large portion America’s journey has been dedicated to validating and expanding upon that original statement and applying it to all Americans, not just a select few.
Davidson College’s founding charter put forward a similarly ambiguous promise in 1837. “This college was founded for the education of young people. It didn’t say young male white people because the assumption by the men creating it is that it would be male white people,” explained Jane Blodgett, a former Davidson archivist and co-author of the Davidson history book One Town, Many Voices.
“Davidson always sought to be affordable, Davidson always acknowledged the important connection between education and citizenship, that an educated citizen was important,” added President Carol Quillen. “Davidson always wanted to be a place where people pursued knowledge with reason unfettered.”
Like the Declaration of Independence, “there’s a lot about the legacy of Davidson that is important to honor,” according to Quillen. At the same time, she said, “Davidson College came into existence at a time when slavery existed. Enslaved persons contributed to the buildings that we are now sitting in. Honoring that will help us understand, with urgency, the call to create a just society now and to live up to our college’s promise.”
In a September13 email to the campus community, Quillen announced the creation of the Davidson College Commission on Race and Slavery. The commission will be composed of “students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees and community members,” according to the email. The draft charge of the commission is in part to “assist the college community in building a comprehensive understanding of the college’s own history, which is intertwined with the institution and legacies of slavery and the lives of enslaved persons.”
In the first two decades of its existence, numerous faculty members at Davidson owned slaves. The college frequently rented slaves from local plantations to help with the upkeep of buildings on campus. One Town, Many Voices tells of students harassing slaves on Main Street. The school’s initial buildings, including the chapel, were built from bricks produced by slaves.
The commission will seek to further explore the history and stories of enslaved persons on campus, as well as the relationship of the college to the black community in town throughout the years. In addition to initiating research and promoting a campus wide dialogue on race, the commission will also look at options for placing historic markers or plaques on campus to recognize sites with a significant connection to slavery.
With regard to visible reminders of slavery and the Confederacy that may be on campus, Quillen emphasized that “if we are inadvertently, or in some cases intentionally perpetuating oppressive structures that we’ve inherited from the past, the best way to dismantle those structures is to understand where they came from.”
Some additional details of the commission, such as how members are to be selected, will be determined over the coming month. Quillen emphasized the importance of incorporating as many voices as possible into the commission.
“We want [the commission] to be broadly representative of the Davidson community,” stated Quillen. “I understand the eagerness of folks to contribute and we just want to make sure we have clear ways to people to feel involved. To me, the more people involved, the better.” She also encourages students to reach out with suggestions for how the commission can best engage the student body and foster a productive conversation.
Quillen’s announcement comes during a moment in which many other colleges are examining their own institutions’ history, particularly with regards to racial issues and slavery.
“The most visible examples of where these commissions have happened has actually not been on southern campuses,” said Dr. Michael Guasco, chair of the history department.
Many of the early pushes for examining college ties to slavery came from Ivy League schools and institutions in the Northeast. Brown University notably formed its own committee on “Slavery and Justice” in 2003 and went on to publish information on its ties to the transatlantic slave trade. Yale University recently renamed Calhoun College due to its namesake’s ties to the perpetuation of slavery.
In recent years, school’s initiatives to confront the legacy of slavery head on have continued to make headlines. In 2016, Georgetown University, located in the border state of Maryland, announced that it would formally apologize for its sale of 272 slaves in 1838 to keep the school afloat financially. Along with the apology, Georgetown created its own commission and began planning a campus memorial to enslaved persons.
In addition to forming the commission, Davidson also joined the consortium of schools called Universities Studying Slavery (USS) last month. Brown and Georgetown are also USS members. Organized by the University of Virginia, the group “allows participating institutions to work together as they address both historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education,” according to its website. USS seeks to understand the lasting impact slavery’s legacy on college campuses and American society as a whole through shared resources and symposiums amongst members schools.
Guasco stated, “In the next two, three, four years we’re going to see a number of places doing exactly what Davidson is going to do.” Davidson, and other schools in the USS, serve as models for other institutions struggling to address their institutional histories. Furman University, a USS member, is holding a workshop next summer entitled “The 14th at 150: Slavery & Justice in the Liberal Arts.” The seminar hopes to plan ways institutions “can be proactive” in “assessing slavery’s impact.”
Guasco added, “This is a campus, and this is not unique to Davidson, where there’s a whole lot of silence on the subject of slavery and race that really makes it difficult for people to honestly engage with what are the real legacies that are associated with that.”
“I think it’s critical for us to unearth, and study, and explore and make open all of this stuff,” said Guasco. He and Quillen both stated their eagerness to have the commission’s findings made publicly accessible and even turn conversations initiated by the commission into actual courses for students in history, Africana-studies, and other departments.
“We can learn so we’re not limited by what we experience. We can develop empathy because we’ve read about other people’s experiences and we’ve read about the construction of race and we understand the approach that different scholars have taken to the study of race,” said Quillen.
Davidson has undergone stark changes in the last two decades, with the student body becoming rapidly more diverse. With the increased diversity also comes pressure for increased conversations regarding Davidson’s racial legacy.
“Back then, we weren’t even close to really dealing with issues like this,” says Professor Ike Bailey ‘95. “It’s like night and day.” He noted how in the early ‘90s students still hung Confederate flags from dorm windows. Bailey also remembers the appearance of op-eds in The Davidsonian that downplayed the role of slavery in the Civil War.
“To me, this is very much about holding ourselves accountable to the present,” stated Quillen. “Insofar as we live in the present, insofar as we ourselves want to create a just society. We want to work for justice everyone, we want to honor the human dignity of all persons. We study the past at least in part so we can understand how to do that better in the present.”