written by: Dax Boatwright
I write these words thinking of my oldest known ancestor whose identity was erased through rape and enslavement in Wrightsville, GA. In spite of the defilement of her body and the forfeiture of her life because a majoritarian patriarchal society saw her as a tool instead of a person, she survived. Because of her resilience, our family survived two generations of slavery (that we know of), two generations of economic exploitation through sharecropping, and two generations enduring racial apartheid more commonly known as Jim Crow.
If I could speak to her, I would want her to know that seven generations later as I stand on the shoulders of her descendants, the waters of oppression still overtake me. Some members in our family remain justifiably cynical of achieving equality, yet others believe there are signs that the water will begin to recede. Regardless of whether or not that time will come, I choose to tell our story because while she was reduced to an object to build a nation, her lasting legacy is her family, that – while scarred – continues to live on.
In similar fashion to many other Black families, I was nurtured to pursue a higher education degree as a means to break the cycle of systemic oppression that is endemic to the lived experiences of the Black community. Higher education was presented to me as a vehicle for better employment opportunities, personal development and an overall higher quality of life. However, what I was not told was how the system of higher education in the United States was built on the dehumanization of Black people, and while slavery has been abolished for over 150 years, the attributes of inequality, inequity, indignity, and control remain present at PWIs.
Maintaining these characteristics at PWIs produces Black student experiences rife with racial micro-aggressions (Johnston-Guerrero, 2016; Linley, 2018; Rael, 2002) and racist campus climates (Nadal et al., 2014; Van Dyke & Tester, 2014) that produce negative Black student experiences (Harper, 2012; Harper & Newman, 2016). Therefore, the purpose of this essay is to examine the connection the higher education system in the United States has to slavery. Through my positionality, I will demonstrate how slavery and its legacy has impacted my family. Lastly, I will conclude with examples of how the legacy of slavery continues to impact the Black community, recommendations for how higher education institutions can improve Black student experiences, and discussion questions for student affairs professionals to consider.
Slavery at Predominantly White Institutions
The origins of the higher education system of the United States trace back to slavery. Additionally, many higher education institutions in the United States have an association with slavery. For example, Nathan Lord, President of Dartmouth College, defended chattel slavery in the United States as a “condition better than any condition Africans would have otherwise enjoyed” (Lord & Presbyter, 1854, p. 23). As such, Nathan Lord was promoting a property interest in whiteness by reducing enslaved Black people to tools used to uphold white superiority (Delgado & Stefancic, 2000, 2001).
Beckert and Stevens (2011) affirmed that large-scale slave traders gave substantial donations to Harvard University – for instance, Isaac Royall, Jr., a slave trader who in 1779 bequeathed land to establish Harvard’s law school. Support of this kind turned a fledgling university into a higher education institution with the largest academic endowment in the world. Similarly, Clarke and Fine (2010) detail how local banker John Brown generated a massive fortune based on investing in the slave trade and building a fleet of slave ships, which provided the finances to establish Brown University. Likewise, Georgetown University wanted to end its involvement with slavery by the 1850s, but instead of emancipating their enslaved labor, they sold their captives to two oppressors in Louisiana for $115,000, which is approximately $3.6 million when adjusted for inflation (Rothman, 2017). In addition, Rutgers University benefited from the “wealth accumulated by colonial aristocracy” based in chattel slavery, which would establish this institution (Fuentes & White, 2016, p. 43). Dozens more institutions in the United States have an association with slavery, but this essay focuses on The College of William and Mary, Yale University, and the University of Alabama to examine the depth of the associations higher education institutions have with slavery.
The College of William and Mary
The College of William and Mary received funding from taxes of tobacco crops cultivated by enslaved Black people (Meyers, 2007). Furthermore, enslaved persons oppressed by President James Blair were a part of the labor force that built many of the buildings on campus (Meyers, 2007). The College of William and Mary also received appropriations from the General Assembly, which the college used to purchase over 2,000 acres of land for a forced labor camp and seventeen enslaved Black people in 1718 (Meyers, 2007).
Records from The College of William and Mary describe the decrepit accommodations and constant buying, selling and renting of enslaved people (Meyers, 2007). The faculty routinely applied the dismissive narrative of inferiority, thereby erasing the humanity of enslaved people from the inception of the institution up to the Civil War (Meyers, 2007). The college did engage in anti-slavery actions such as its 1760 affiliation with a school for Black children, employing anti-slavery law Professors George Whyte and St. George Tucker and awarding an honorary degree to abolitionist Granville Sharp (Meyers, 2012). However, these acts do not diminish the culpability of this higher education institution operating a forced labor camp for 90 years (Meyers, 2012).
The origins of Yale University also have ties to slavery (Dugdale et al., 2001). John Davenport, founder of New Haven, Connecticut, Timothy Woodbridge, a founder of Yale College, and Jonathan Edwards, preeminent Yale scholar, all oppressed Black people (Dugdale et al., 2001). The prominence Yale University enjoys today comes from its foundation in slavery. The first endowed professorship, scholarship fund and endowed library fund are the result of transactions dependent upon the institution of slavery (Dugdale et al., 2001).
Philip Livingston endowed the first professorship at Yale University (Dugdale et al., 2001). Livingston was an oppressor, inheriting a family business from his father Robert who created his fortune by investing in the Margriet, a vessel of oppression transporting sugar, tobacco and enslaved Black people (Dugdale et al., 2001). In Robert’s will, he bequeathed to Philip his wealth, his manor and six of the 12 enslaved Black people he oppressed in captivity (Dugdale et al., 2001). Philip invested his inheritance in the family business becoming a well-known auctioneer of oppression and acquiring four additional vessels of bondage (Dugdale et al., 2001). Yale University accepted his donation at the apex of his involvement in oppression and used his donation to fund its first professorship (Dugdale et al., 2001).
Dugdale et al. (2001) recounted that Bishop George Berkeley was not only an advocate of oppression, but also used Christianity as a vehicle to command obedience and servitude in enslaved people. Berkeley purchased a forced labor camp in Newport, Rhode Island and donated the land to Yale University when he returned to Europe in 1731 (Dugdale et al., 2001). Yale University then turned payments from the land into scholarships; moreover, its first scholarship remained funded for 50 years because of money generated from enslaved labor (Dugdale et al., 2001). Rev. Jared Eliot, one of Yale’s earliest graduates, generated agricultural success from the oppression of Black people (Dugdale et al., 2001). In his will, he bequeathed a significant donation produced from enslaved labor for the Yale University library system (Dugdale et al., 2001).
University of Alabama
Like the College of William and Mary and Yale University, the University of Alabama also has sordid origins because of its association with slavery. Faculty, students and the University of Alabama owned enslaved people (Brophy, 2011; Gibney et al., 2008). Enslaved people forcibly made the bricks that built the University of Alabama which promoted their inferiority and continued bondage (Gibney et al., 2008).
Additionally, monuments of Confederates, plaques commemorating the systemic oppression of Black people and buildings named after despots adorned the campus while the bodies of the enslaved lied in unmarked graves unrecognized by the University of Alabama (Gibney et al., 2008). At the onset of the antebellum South, institutions began to excise abolitionists’ values and replaced it with a cruder more dehumanizing philosophy based on slavery. In 1837, Basil Manly became the President of the University of Alabama and throughout his tenure; he oversaw campus improvements, stabilized order, and recruited prominent faculty members (Gibney et al., 2008). Most egregiously, President Manly lectured on a social order championing the status quo of the South dominated by white society with enslaved Black people ensconced in the bottom caste (Gibney et al., 2008). These instances along with others constitute the initial experiences of Black people in higher education in the United States.
Education has long-standing historical roots in Black culture as a process for overcoming barriers to freedom and continues as a viable remedy for addressing socioeconomic oppression (Felder, 1987). As Lincoln (1969) asserted, “the relevance of the Black American’s education to the prevailing socioeconomic structure [is] the logical end to the struggle” (p. 219). Ladson-Billings (1998) addressed the plight of Black Americans and the need for educational attainment to provide the counter-story to the majoritarian narrative of social inequity endured by the Black community. Therefore, understanding how slavery has disenfranchised generations of Black Americans is vital to examining and understanding the lived experiences of the Black community.
The Origins of the Scars They Caused
In its infancy, the system of higher education in the United States purposely erased and acted as vital pillar in the purposeful degradation of generations of innocent Black people. However, I am a member of the few Black American families who can trace their ancestry back to slavery. My family is rooted in the state of Georgia. Our lineage of oppression traces back to Moses Pullens, an oppressor and forced labor camp owner in Wrightsville, GA. His nephew, Frank Hicks, raped an unknown enslaved woman, which produced Jasper Hicks.
Jasper, a mulatto, as he was identified on the United States Federal Census of 1880, carried favor with the Hicks family but remained enslaved. The oral history of my family details Jasper living a favored life, but the society of oppression created by English despots shaped the culture of Georgia during his time. He eventually married an enslaved woman named Charlotta. Together, they had nine children, among them my direct ancestor Angeline Hicks (1869 -1948) who married Frank Pullens. Angeline, born directly after the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, experienced a hard life defined by fieldwork and survival. Bootlegging alcohol and sharecropping on the same land that enslaved her parents, Angeline and Frank had seven children, including my great-grandmother, Cora Pullens (1892 – 1980). After decades of backbreaking fieldwork and societal marginalization, Angeline and Frank were only able to pass down skills in sharecropping to the next generation.
Inheriting the strength of her parents along with the crumbs from the oppressors table, my great-grandmother and her husband Bubba Robinson were also sharecroppers of Moses’ land of bondage, the same stretch of land that enslaved our family for two generations and trapped my family for two more. My great grandparents had seven children, five girls and two boys. Yearning to escape the life of a sharecropper, my great uncles migrated south, eventually settling in Fort Pierce, Florida to pursue better opportunities. After establishing themselves, they sent word to their sisters, among them my grandmother Agnes Robinson (1927 – 2006) and eventually they and my great grandmother moved to Fort Pierce. My great grandfather never had the opportunity to experience the beauty of a Florida sunset as he became gravely ill and died a young man in Wrightsville.
My grandmother had three children, one boy and two girls, the youngest my mother. My grandmother, never shy of hard work, labored during the Jim Crow era at the Gladiola Flower Camp, the Greyhound bus station, and was the executor of the estate for a wealthy elderly couple. At the age of 65, she worked as a citrus worker at a local packinghouse well into her mid-70s. She instilled her belief of hard work in my mother and guided her to apply those values in pursuit of a bachelorette degree. My grandmother’s counsel proved fruitful as my mother graduated with her bachelor’s degree in speech pathology out of a desire to help people like her sister who had a speech impediment. Ultimately, her path would lead to a distinguished career in state government culminating in 39 years of public service. According to my mother, she along with all the members of her generation, were expected to go to college because of the increased opportunities associated with being a college graduate. As such, those same values ingrained in my mother now serve me as I am the first in my family to earn a doctoral degree and I use those same principles in my practice as a higher education professional.
Due to the lived experiences of my ancestors, my position finds me as the carrier of DNA comprised of trauma, psychological manipulation, and degradation. My Black skin bears the scars of the discrimination, ostracism, prejudice and hate purported by societal institutions created by and solely for the progression of majoritarian culture. Moreover, this culture of oppression maintained the names of my ancestor’s oppressors while erasing her name from history.
Therefore, I am a product of generational oppression instead of an extension of a great African civilization. Many white American citizens will inherit wealth while I inherit a long-standing, hollow promise for diversity and inclusion in American society. I live and operate in a country that still refuses to apologize for the destruction of my native civilization and centuries of bondage suffered by my ancestors. I exist under the guise of the American Dream, a dream forged from the blood of my ancestors and the exploitation of my community with the treasure largely reaped by the majoritarian culture. Despite the historical circumstances that are highly influential in the lived experiences of Black Americans, the persistence and strength demonstrated by my family generation after generation does not negate the continuous marginalization of Blackness endemic to the United States. Regardless of our achievements and predilection to assimilate to a society built by us but not for us, the scars still remain. In essence, since the independence of the U.S. in 1776, my family has existed in perpetual disrepair because of the inhumane, economically exploitative and prejudicial customs instituted by majoritarian patriarchy to regulate Black life in this nation.
The Legacy of the Scars They Caused
In many ways the perpetual disrepair experienced by Black Americans has been exacerbated by a global pandemic and civil discontent. As I reflect on the summer months of 2020 while the United States was in the throes of COVID-19 and simultaneously enduring the civic unrest sweeping across the nation, I can see the legacy of slavery that defines the generational oppression of Black people. This period of time undergirds the scars worn not just by my family, but many families within the African Diaspora. Ahmaud Arbery became the iconography of Black life in this nation. The killing of Breonna Taylor serves as the motif of innocent Black lives lost to police negligence. The murder of George Floyd became my generation’s Emmett Till, however, instead of an open casket, my generation has a video of his murder that remains on the internet for perpetuity.
Therefore, as I reflect on the dehumanization suffered by my ancestors, it is evident that the generational scars of oppression remain etched in the lived experiences of Black people. Scars can represent healing, but they also serve as reminders for pain inflicted and harm done. These scars, in particular, also represent the defiance of majoritarian patriarchy to only tacitly acknowledge the inhumanity suffered by innocent Black people instead of instituting a full, unambiguous redress of the suffering the Black community continues to endure. Moreover, as prospective Black students pursue a higher education degree to mitigate the impact of societal oppression, I recommend higher education institutions do the following to ensure these spaces are accommodating to their academic and social needs:
- Create spaces for continuous dialogue between administration, faculty, staff and students to understand how the remnants of slavery continue to negatively impact the lived experiences of Black students. By implementing this recommendation, higher education professionals have the opportunity to gain additional insight about the lived experiences of Black students and enable connections as well to increase the sense of belonging among this student population.
- Create an office dedicated to promote the success of Black students. The intent of this office should be to support, educate, and foster meaningful relationships with Black students. Moreover, campus partners should collaborate with this office on institutional initiatives designed to produce a more inclusive campus environment.
- Re-examine existing policies to assess their impact on the matriculation of Black students. Administrations should ensure a review of institutional policies occur on an annual basis to optimize opportunities for all student populations to have a more equitable experience.
- Use theoretical frameworks in your practice to reinforce your understanding of identity. For example, A Conceptual Model of Multiple Dimensions of Identity by Jones & McEwen (2000) underscores how a single identity can be understood, how identity relates to other dimensions of identity and the elements used to engage in the nuances of identity. Most pointedly, the authors state that individuals who identify with the majority identity in higher education institutions have “the responsibility to help students from majority statuses understand the implications of taken-for-granted identities” (Jones & McEwen, 2000, p. 412-413). Infusing this concept of understanding identity informs higher education professionals of how individuals, in particular, those from disenfranchised populations of how they make meaning of their contextualized influences that inform their identity.
- Administrations should stop the practice of issuing social justice statements as a response to civic injustice against Black people. These statements represent a frail, hollow acknowledgement that are baseless and forgettable, and therefore do nothing to recognize or support Black student populations. Instead, colleges and universities should respond with a list of actionable solutions designed to promote diversity, equity and inclusion which represent tangible support and an additional opportunity to make meaningful connections to Black students.
- How does my institution discuss, showcase, and understand the lived experiences of Black students on campus? What does it currently do and what is missing that it could be doing? Who should lead that work?
- Given the scars and history that Black students in higher education carry, how is my institution successfully maximizing opportunities to connect to Black students? What gaps exist and what can be done to address those gaps?
Historically, Blackness in this country has experienced inhumanity, erasure, exploitation and marginalization. In its infancy, the system of higher education in the United States willingly supported that experience through its association with slavery. After the abolishment of slavery and enduring racial apartheid, higher education institutions were promoted as incubators of human development. Yet, the development of Black students in these spaces continues to be met with apathy, indifference and a preference for detachment from the issues that maintain the societal oppression of the Black community (Harper, 2012; Harper & Newman, 2016; Johnston-Guerrero, 2016; Linley, 2018; Nadal et al., 2014; Rael, 2002; Van Dyke & Tester, 2014). Therefore, as Blackness exists in a racialized hierarchy adhering to the interest of majoritarian patriarchy, it is incumbent higher education professionals understand the generational disadvantages that accompany Black students when entering these spaces. As such, colleges and universities need to apply consistent, substantive efforts to understand, connect and reaffirm their commitment to Black students. Doing so will amplify the influence of higher education in the Black community, which will provide additional opportunities to these students in a more equitable learning environment.
About the Author
Dax Boatwright, Ph.D. is a student affairs practitioner at Florida Atlantic University. He graduated from Florida Atlantic University in summer 2021 with a Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership. Dax earned an educational specialist degree in Educational Leadership and Policy from Florida State University. He earned a master’s degree in Applied Social Science with a concentration in Political Science and bachelor’s degree in English from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. His doctoral dissertation focused on exploring the influences of Black American alumni giving to a PWI historically associated with slavery. Boatwright’s research interests include philanthropy, affinity development, social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education institutions.
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