Philip Marcelo, Associated Press, May 13, 2021
For Brown University students, the Ivy League college’s next step in its yearslong quest to atone for its legacy of slavery is clear: Pay up.
Nearly two decades after the Providence, Rhode Island, institution launched its much-lauded reckoning, undergraduate students this spring voted overwhelmingly for the university to identify the descendants of slaves that worked on campus and begin paying them reparations.
At the University of Georgia, community activists want the school to contribute to Athens’ efforts to atone for an urban renewal project that destroyed a Black community in the 1960s to make way for college dorms.
And at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., there’s growing dissatisfaction among some slave descendants about the Catholic institution’s pioneering reparations efforts.
Nearly a year after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked the latest national reckoning on racism, student and community activists from New England to the Deep South are demanding institutions take more ambitious steps to atone for past sins — from colonial-era slavery to more recent campus expansion projects that have pushed out entire communities of color.
“There’s been a shift in America,” said Jason Carroll, who was student council president during the spring referendum at Brown University. “We’re at a different place. Just a few years ago, it was controversial to say ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
The 22-year-old Maryland native, who graduated this month, argues Brown has taken nearly every conceivable step to atone for its past — save for making slave descendants whole.
The school released an exhaustive historical report in 2006 and followed it up with the dedication of a slavery memorial in 2014, among other efforts. An “Anti-Black Racism” task force is expected to deliver recommendations soon for how the school can further promote racial equity. But university spokesperson Brian Clark stressed it’s not clear whether the panel, which was formed following last summer’s racial unrest, will address reparations.
Students at Harvard are similarly calling for reparations after years of headline-grabbing announcements from the school, including dropping the law school emblem, which was derived from the crest of a slave-owning family. A panel looking at the university’s slave legacy plans to release its findings and recommendations later this year.
At the University of Chicago, students are frustrated that the university continues to distance itself from its slavery ties, even as it touts efforts to advance racial equity and justice, said Caine Jordan, a graduate student who co-authored a recent report on the school’s fraught racial history.
Last year, the university removed markers honoring U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, but maintained the Mississippi slave plantation owner donated land to an older version of the school and had “ no connection ” to the current one.
In Virginia, a new law mandates the state’s five public colleges provide “tangible benefits” for slave descendants.
Cauline Yates, a descendant of one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, said she hopes the law compels the flagship University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded, to provide academic scholarships and economic development projects for descendants.
“It’s time for them to stand up and honor our ancestors,” said the 67-year-old Charlottesville resident, who works at the university and co-founded the advocacy group Descendants of Enslaved Communities at UVA.