The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How elite colleges can atone for their history with slavery

Students at Georgetown University made signs and protested on Oct. 3 in Washington. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Ben Crump is a civil rights attorney and founder of the national law firm Ben Crump Law, based in Tallahassee, Fla.

The United States’ most elite universities continue to grapple with their historic ties to slavery. Last month, students at Georgetown University pushed for their school to pay reparations for slaves once sold by the school after voting to impose a $27.20 per-student, per-semester fee to fund reparations to the descendants of the 272 slaves owned and then sold by the school. Princeton recently disclosed that its first nine university presidents owned slaves, as did many Princeton faculty members. Half of Columbia University’s early presidents owned slaves as well.

Meanwhile, the nation’s historically black colleges and universities are in a desperate struggle for financial survival. Here’s a thought: Elite universities can accelerate the United States’ slow trek toward atonement for slavery by dedicating some of their wealth — amassed on the backs of enslaved African Americans — to struggling HBCUs.

It’s only fitting. Slaves who toiled at some of our most elite universities suffered mistreatment and worse. Historians say, for example, that male students at the University of Virginia beat and raped enslaved people 200 years ago. And many elite universities, including Harvard and Rutgers, sought to justify slavery by trying to prove the supposed inferiority of black people or reinforcing the justification for slavery in their curriculum.

While enslaved people built and maintained some of America’s most prestigious universities, their descendants wouldn’t be admitted as students for generations. In the face of such segregation and discrimination, HBCUs rose up to provide a quality education to black Americans, including civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice on the Supreme Court.

Every day, more academic institutions are uncovering information that they were complicit in the slave economy, whether actively or passively. While the truth might hurt, it’s all the more reason for them to support and invest in minority students and HBCUs.

The results show it’s well worth it. HBCUs make up only 3 percent of four-year colleges in the country but have produced 80 percent of the nation’s black judges and 50 percent of its black doctors, as well as famous writers and actors such as Alice Walker and Chadwick Boseman. HBCU’ alumni have impacted our culture, powered the civil rights movement and changed the course of history.

These unique institutions serve many low-income, first-generation students, but they are more reliant on federal dollars and have smaller alumni fundraising networks. That means HBCUs face an uncertain future while older colleges and universities, some with vast endowments, are coming to grips with their slavery legacies. Howard University, the wealthiest among the nation’s HBCUs, has an endowment less than 2 percent of Harvard’s $40 billion endowment.

Recently, Princeton Theological Seminary announced that it will set aside $27.6 million for scholarships and fellowships for the descendants of slaves or members of underrepresented groups to make reparations for the school’s past ties to slavery. While the New Jersey seminary itself never owned slaves, an audit showed that faculty members used slave labor at some point and that the college also benefited from investments in Southern banks and donors who profited from slavery. Founded in 1812, the seminary is not part of Princeton University but is the second-oldest seminary in the country.

Other universities, such as Brown, Emory, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia, have also acknowledged the historical role of slavery at their institutions. Such research spurred the University of Virginia to create Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium that includes 56 colleges and universities.

It’s a good start, as these educational institutions cannot run from their past. But much more is needed. If they truly want to make meaningful amends, the opportunity is now at hand.

These institutions should atone for their past by transforming the future for HBCUs and the many black students they serve. It won’t erase the stain of slavery from their past, but it can make a meaningful difference for the future.

Read more:

Christine Emba: Georgetown students have voted in favor of reparations. Will America?

Megan McArdle: Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are wrong. We shouldn’t pay reparations for slavery.

Jonathan Capehart: How Ta-Nehisi Coates turned reparations from a punchline into a policy objective

The Post’s View: Georgetown University is trying to make right the sale of human beings

Maxine Crump and Richard J. Cellini: How Georgetown should honor its former slaves