This is a moment that has arrived on so many college campuses already. There is Georgetown University, which has worked to confront its ties to slavery. And the University of Virginia, where officials are planning a memorial to commemorate the contributions of enslaved people who helped build the school.
These conversations are now playing out at another institution: George Washington University, where students will have the chance to dig deep into their school's history, with a spring class on slavery, segregation and the university.
"This is a movement we've seen on campuses, I would say, over the past decade," said Terry Murphy, deputy provost for academic affairs. "We have a lot of faculty on this campus, and students, who are interested in some of the broader issues that surround this question — questions about race and social justice. So I don't think it's surprising that either faculty or students or staff are interested in the topic."
When that interest took hold on other campuses, it led, for example, to the Princeton and Slavery Project at that university.
Martha Sandweiss, the professor who heads up the project, came to Princeton in 2009, and was curious about the university where she was going to work. Sandweiss decided to teach an undergraduate history course on Princeton and slavery, to begin to see what could be uncovered. In time, her work evolved into the Slavery Project, which has launched a website to share its findings. The research was rough going at first, said Sandweiss. It wasn't really clear where to look or what to ask.
"Do you look for slaveholders? Do you follow the money? Do you try to understand the political culture on campus? Do you follow the students?" Sandweiss said. "In the end, we were able to do all of those things, and I would say in a nutshell that some of what we found makes us deeply typical."
Soon enough, Princeton's stories may serve as fodder for the GW students, said Richard Stott, the professor who will teach the course.
Their first assignment will have them look for another university that has undertaken similar work, and report to the class. Stott said he also expects students to tackle a research paper, with an assist from the university archives.
"We're just more interested in the issues of race and slavery now — it's certainly not a new issue in American history," he said. "But it's really moved, certainly . . . in our kind of national story, to fairly, a central place. Arguably, the central place."
A proposal — written in 2016 by Jennifer James, director of the Africana Studies Program at GW — asks that this type of work be extended and funded at the university and makes note of some what is already known about the school's history. It was founded as Columbian College in 1821. At least two of the college's presidents owned slaves, according to the proposal. In 1847, a student was expelled for trying to help an enslaved man.
"While revelations such as these might seem unwelcome, universities at their finest are institutions committed [to] pursuing, producing and disseminating knowledge," the proposal states. "They lead the conversations vital to maintaining an enlightened citizenry and fostering a healthy democracy."
Amid these conversations about slavery, segregation and the school's legacy, students are also looking at buildings on campus and scrutinizing the names they carry.
"There are many, many sides to history," said Imani Ross, a 21-year-old junior who is involved in that effort. "If we're ever going to be good citizens and move forward in our country, we have to address every aspect of history. So this isn't about erasing history or changing it. It's about honoring and commemorating parts of history that are often overlooked."
There is value to college students learning about what happened at their schools, said Murphy. Students can identify deeply with the institutions where they live and study, but sometimes students have presumptions about their universities, based on their own experiences.
"So if there are aspects of the history that surprised them, I think it's important to complicate their understanding," she said. "Because studying what's going on at their own college is so personal, I think it's a way for them to feel like history is something that matters to them."
Murphy said she hoped that students and faculty who look into the school's relationship with slavery and segregation develop an understanding of "some of the injustices" in history and society.
"But I also hope that they come away wi0th an appreciation for the activities of students and staff at this school, who often confronted those injustices and worked for change," she said. "That's an inspiring message for our students."