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Institutional skeletons

Scholars at Princeton University recently unveiled their “Princeton and Slavery” project, which aims to “investigate the University’s involvement with the institution of slavery.” The efforts of Princeton researchers to acknowledge their university’s connection to slavery comes as part of a recent wave by some of the nation’s most elite universities to atone for past institutional wrongdoings. Georgetown University has announced perhaps the most concrete strategy for atoning for its past role in selling 272 slaves, providing admissions preference to their descendants. As many schools across the country come to terms with less savory elements from their institutional histories, we at Duke should also seek to reckon with our own historical skeletons that remain buried within the catacombs of the Gothic Wonderland.  

Although Duke University’s official founding in 1924 may preclude our school from any direct involvement with slavery, our institutional past as a school based in the historic South still remains closely tied with systems of white supremacy. Washington Duke, to whom the university was originally named after, did in fact own slaves before the Civil War. Additionally, the post-War nature of the Duke family’s tobacco fortune does not divorce it from its explicit role in exploiting black labor following the Civil War period. Moreover, among the many Gothic and Georgian buildings on campus, one can find the namesakes of unabashed racists connected to the University. Willis Smith (who unlike others has no obvious namesakes on campus), the chair of the Duke Board of Trustees in the early 1950s, campaigned for the Senate on a segregationist platform that included “upholding the traditions of the South.” Julian Carr, the namesake of the history department’s building on East Campus, once publically boasted of whipping a black woman. President William Preston Few, the mastermind behind the formation of Duke University from Trinity, venerated Robert E. Lee as “the guiding star of our heavens.” Though these men were integral in the formation of Duke, their explicit racism is indicative of our institutional complicity in supporting systems of white supremacy and racial oppression against people of color.  

Owing to our location in the South, Duke has an outsized responsibility to acknowledge our historical role in perpetuating institutionalized racism. Though it is disingenuous to pretend that issues surrounding slavery and racism remain confined to the South, the region has been and continues to be central in discussions around modern racism and disenfranchisement. If Duke truly wants to make all students, faculty and employees feel welcome on campus, we need to show that we are working towards acknowledge our history in meaningful ways. This acknowledgement cannot come in the form of lip service; concrete actions, such as the recent removal of Robert E. Lee’s effigy from the Chapel, need to be taken. 

Duke needs to do more as an institution to acknowledge the history of racism at the University, as other universities throughout the nation are currently doing. Students and professors alike should pressure the university into reckoning with our institutional past wrongdoings, and seek to atone for them in an appropriate manner. At a school where nearly half of the undergraduate body identifies as students of color, we cannot continue to hide our past and present institutional complicity in oppressing people of color. Duke has a clear history of supporting systems of oppression and racial hierarchies; in light of recent events at Princeton and Georgetown, we should seek to acknowledge and atone for this history in a manner consistent with the diverse values of our university. 


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