History, But No Smoking Gun

University of Maryland releases findings of inquiry into its ties to slavery.
October 12, 2009

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Undergraduates here announced on Friday the findings of their year-long study to uncover the University of Maryland’s slavery ties, discovering no evidence that slaves built or worked at the institution, even though many of its founders were themselves slaveholders.

Students from a two-semester history research course led by Ira Berlin, a prominent slavery scholar, presented the culmination of hours of library and archival research Friday, a 30-page report “Knowing Our History: African American Slavery and the University of Maryland.”

Graduate students at Yale University, a faculty-student group at Brown University and researchers and archivists at several other colleges and universities have, in the last decade or so, begun scouring institutional records for long-forgotten details of ties to slavery. (This reporter, in fact, conducted research about Princeton University for her 2008 senior thesis there.)

Though there had been “no effort by the university” to stifle a project of this sort at Maryland, said C.D. Mote, Jr., the university’s president, it was not until this recent spate of studies, and Maryland’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2006, that administrators began to seriously consider a study. Mote asked Berlin to lead undergraduates in their examination of the institution’s slavery past and, after some initial reluctance, the historian agreed. It was at once an opportunity to probe the university’s earliest history and give the 18 students in the class a chance to conduct original, primary source research.

“The possibility of using this larger concern about our university’s origins” was, Berlin said Friday, “in some ways … irresistible.”

The students, Berlin wrote in his introduction to the report, held out hope “to find the smoking gun, the direct evidence that slaves cleared the land, constructed the buildings and worked in the dining halls,” but were unable to find documentary evidence. Elizabeth McAllister, the university’s acting curator of manuscripts, had warned the students this might be the case, because many university documents were destroyed in a fire.

What they did find, though, was a new understanding of how slavery helped form the Maryland Agricultural College, which later became the state university.

The students already knew that Charles Benedict Calvert -- the man who donated the land on which the campus was built and pushed strongly for the establishment of a school to create new agricultural methods -- was a slaveholder.

What they found in their research was that Calvert was not fervently pro-slavery. He sent his sons to a school run by Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Hallowell, who eventually became the college’s first president, who "preferred to say as little as possible about slavery,” the students wrote. Calvert's desire to create the college, the students concluded, came in large part from his observation that slave-dependent agricultural methods were no longer profitable in Maryland. Hallowell, for his part, urged that slave labor not be used on campus.

After summarizing their findings at Friday’s event, the students presented Mote with a list of recommendations for the university’s next steps on slavery. The university, they said, should “issue a statement of regret” for its ties to slavery and segregation practices that continued there well into the 20th century.

Though Mote didn't issue an apology, he did say "the university shares in the profound regret for the suffering and injustices” of slavery. "As inheritors of a society in which slavery was practiced widely, we all share in the benefits and tragedies of that era."

The students also suggested that Adam Francis Plummer, a slave of Calvert's, be considered one of the university's founders. Though slaves may not have worked at the college, "[t]heir labor and their persons ... made enslaved African Americans co-founders of the Maryland Agricultural College," the report said. "Their contribution was unpaid years of labor dating back to Maryland's founding."


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