GW should more publicly acknowledge Washington’s history with slavery

Stefan Sultan, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

For the last two years, once incoming freshmen finished settling in to their new residence halls on move-in day, buses have pulled up to take them to George Washington’s Mount Vernon for GW’s First Night, which celebrates Washington’s legacy. Yet at no time that night was there any mention of Mount Vernon being a plantation – home to 318 of the Washingtons’ slaves.

Although slavery ended more than 100 years ago, it hasn’t disappeared as a topic of conversation. Last month, the publishing company Scholastic made national headlines after publishing a children’s book about Washington’s “happy” slaves, who – with pride and smiles – made a birthday cake for their owner.

We’ve also seen debates over the names of buildings on college campuses, like at Georgetown and Yale universities, where students have begun to take issue with naming buildings or schools on campus after those who kept slaves.

At GW, University officials don’t try to hide Washington’s past, but GW must still do more to address it. The University could start by taking action to publicly remember the men and women Washington kept as slaves.

There are countless ways that the University could create a space for students to reflect on the past. For example, officials could place plaques on the busts and statues of Washington across campus that acknowledge the slaves he kept, or erect a monument in Kogan Plaza in their honor.

In the past, University President Steven Knapp has addressed diversity and race relations on campus, which he could take a step further by addressing this issue. Finding a way to honor Washington’s slaves through a monument or a memorial is an idea “consistent with that tradition and certainly worthy of a broad discussion,” Knapp said in an email.

Knapp also said that last year, GW hosted historian Philip Morgan, who is a black history professor at Johns Hopkins University. In 2011, GW was chosen as the site for author Toni Morrison’s Bench by the Road, a memorial to slavery and the civil rights movement, he said.

“The University has long encouraged open discussion of our namesake’s complex relationship to slavery,” Knapp said.

But while both of these are good examples, GW can do more to acknowledge Washington’s connection to slavery.

Washington is, like so many other historical figures, quite complicated. Of course, he did many incredible things – notably leading the American Revolution and becoming our country’s first president – that made him a part of our heritage. Those achievements are visible through the city and the school named after him. But at the same time he was a slave owner – a fact that cannot be dissociated from him or his legacy.

Ultimately, the University has to acknowledge and memorialize its namesake’s unpleasant history. It’s important that we remind students, faculty and visitors of the importance and complexity of our school’s heritage.

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