“The academy never stood apart from American slavery,” argues Craig Steven Wilder in his book Ebony and Ivy. “In fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”
“The American college is largely the story of the rise of the slave economy in the Atlantic world,” Wilder noted.
Producers of the the podcast Shackled Legacy: Universities and the Slave Trade agree.“Profits from slavery and related industries helped fund some of the most prestigious schools in the Northeast, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale.” Wealth from “slavery built several schools in the North. And in many southern states enslaved people built college campuses and served faculty and students.”
A few years ago, Georgetown University In Washington, D.C. admitted slavery’s role in their founding. Educators “orchestrated the sale of 272 men, women and children for $115,000 – $3.3 million in today’s dollars – to pay off the school’s debts.”
At first, the University of Pennsylvania denied “any direct involvement between Penn and the slave trade.” Then a group of students and faculty calling themselves The Penn Slavery Project released revealing research. “Seventy-five of the school’s early trustees, including over twenty of the founding trustees” were either owners of slaves or had financial ties to the slave trade.
The more we look, the more we see: in 18th and 19th-century America, education, philanthropy and the slave trade were woven into a massive tangle of moral compromise that generally was kept secret.
But not always. In one prominent Philadelphia case, not only did folks know it, you might say they even owned it.
Consider the Institute for Colored Youth (later Cheney University) the nation’s earliest institution of higher learning for African Americans, founded in 1837 and still standing at 915 Bainbridge Street. The ICY was made possible with funds from Richard Humphreys, a Caucasian silversmith who left a $10,000 bequest (more than $260,000 in today’s dollars) to the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends in order to establish a school for “…instructing the descendants of the African Race in school learning, in the various branches of the mechanical arts and trades and in Agriculture…in order to prepare and fit and qualify them to act as teachers in such of those branches of useful business…”
Thing was, Humphreys’ fortune originated in the coffee and sugar plantations of Tortola, the Caribbean Island where his parents, members of the Society of Friends, held and benefited from the labor of hundreds of enslaved Africans. At the time of Humphreys’ birth in 1750, his parents were among about 100 British colonists on the island who owned 10,000 Africans brought there to toil and die. The Quakers on Tortola were said to be “self-conscious about their plantations being cultivated by slave labor.” But the Humphreys continued to hold slaves, and accumulate wealth, so long as they lived on the Island.
When Octavius V. Catto (himself an ICY alum) delivered a commencement address more than a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, he acknowledged Humphreys and the Quakers for their “proverbial sympathy and charity for the oppressed,” and their “consistent opposition to ignorance, intemperance, war, and slavery.” This, said Catto, made Humphreys’ name “inseparable from our heartfelt gratitude and respect.” Instead of focusing on the source of the funds, Catto turned his listeners’ attention to the overwhelming need for education of the formerly enslaved, “those millions of human beings now scattered through the Southern country…”
Education, declared Catto, would be their continued path “to come forth into the sunlight of Freedom . . .”
[Sources: Octavius V. Catto,”An Address Delivered at Concert Hall on the Occasion of the Twelfth Annual Commencement of the Institute for Colored Youth,” May 10th, 1864, ExplorePaHistory.com; “Richard Humphreys (1750-1832)” in Philadelphia, Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976), pp. 128-132; Jennifer Schuessler, “Dirty Antebellum Secrets in Ivory Towers,” The New York Times, October 18, 2013; Sheila Simmons, “UPenn Claims No Traces of Slavery in its DNA,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 9, 2016; “Shackled Legacy: Universities and the Slave Trade,” American Public Media podcast, September 4, 2017; Madeleine Ngo, “Penn has acknowledged its ties to slavery, but student researchers say their work is far from over,” The Daily Pennsylvanian, August 24, 2018.]