New history course to allow students to probe GW’s ties to slavery, segregation

Media Credit: File photo by Madeleine Cook | Staff Photographer

Katrin Schultheiss, the chair of the history department, said she decided to offer the course because students often want to delve into the history of their University.

Updated: Oct. 30, 2017 at 4:35 p.m.

Faculty are including students in the effort to examine GW’s history with slavery and segregation in a new course dedicated to researching the subject.

Starting in the spring, the history department will offer a Slavery, Segregation and GWU course for the first time, giving history majors the chance to scour the archives and conduct their own research into how slaves and segregationist policies have shaped the University over its nearly 200-year history.

The course comes on the heels of a faculty effort to formally investigate GW’s ties to slavery and a nationwide trend of universities beginning to come to grips with their roles in one of the darkest chapters in American history.

Last academic year, a faculty research group asked top officials, including former University President Steven Knapp, to fund research into topics like the history of racial justice activism on campus and former college officials who owned slaves. University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said faculty have “delved deeply into GW’s archives and are now working to bring their research to students and the broader community,” including with the new course.

“You have to understand the past of an institution to understand where it is now.”

“We believe it is critical to understand and learn from every aspect of our past, including engagement with slavery and the reality of racial inequality that followed,” she said in an email.

Csellar said the provost’s office will host a symposium either this spring or early next fall about research into GW’s history, which will include “research and learning outcomes from this course.”

Richard Stott, a professor of history who will teach the course next spring, said he was interested in learning more about GW’s past connections to slavery after other universities like Georgetown have faced high-profile controversies involving slavery.

Last year, Georgetown officials announced steps to atone for profiting off the slave trade in the 19th century.

“I see this as part of an ongoing process. I hope to teach this again and I hope that eventually we will have a much better idea of GW’s history,” Stott said. “I would hope that students would come up with things that nobody ever knew before.”

The class will be taught as a majors’ introductory seminar and registration will be initially restricted to history majors. Stott said it will be primarily research-based with students sifting through the University’s archives to find historical records about the history of segregation and slavery over time.

Stott said students would also compare these issues to those at other universities – like Princeton and Georgetown – that have made their history with segregation public in recent years.

“The importance of slavery in American history won’t go away,” he said. “It’s still there and it’s certainly still there in the history of GW, and so is segregation.”

History faculty said the course would allow students to take a more in-depth look at the institution and feel more connected to its past.

Katrin Schultheiss, the chair of the Department of History, said she decided to offer the course because students often want to delve deeper into the history of their University and that offering this course was a good start.

The provost’s office reached out to the department to expand research on GW’s past and its involvement with slavery, she said.

“You have to understand the past of an institution to understand where it is now, and there’s been a lot of talk about these kinds of connections that have long been buried,” Schultheiss said.

The faculty research group has so far found that “enslaved people had an almost constant presence on campus working as servants or laborers,” especially for former presidents and members of the Board of Trustees, according to the library’s website.

After the Civil War, GW remained a segregated university for nearly a century, only allowing minority students in classes in 1954. Prominent figures in University history – namely former University President Cloyd Heck Marvin – fought against desegregation for years.

Phillip Troutman, an assistant professor of writing who is part of the faculty research group, said learning about the University’s past could provide insight into its current policies and climate, particularly with how minority students and service workers are treated on campus.

The research has found that pre-Civil War many students at Columbian College – GW’s original name – were adamantly pro-slavery. Around 1846 students almost rioted at the University’s former campus in Columbia Heights – after one student tried to help a slave on campus gain his freedom.

“Exposing students to that history through the lens of their own institution, hopefully gets them more intimately connected to what history means for them.”

Students threatened to burn an effigy of the student and riot if he was not expelled immediately. Faculty expelled him the next day, Troutman said.

“I think on the surface it doesn’t look relevant. We don’t have a connection to that campus anymore,” he said. “But we’re still the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. We are the institutional legacy of that early college.”

Those kinds of incidents show the power of students to impact the policies of administrators even today, Troutman said.

“It does say something about the relationship and the responsibility of students to shape the culture of this place,” Troutman said. “Students today still have a lot of power that they don’t recognize.”

In September, student leaders formed a committee to examine the history behind the names attached to buildings across campus and assess whether the honored individuals held bigoted or discriminatory views.

Justene Hill Edwards, an assistant history professor at the University of Virginia where a similar course is taught, said offering courses focused on an institution’s past helps overcome a tendency in political discourse to not acknowledge America’s complex past with race, racism and slavery.

“Exposing students to that history through the lens of their own institution, hopefully gets them more intimately connected to what history means for them,” Edwards said. “The fact that GW is delving into its past connections with slavery is a great first step to exposing students to the history of their univesity, both the good and the bad.”

This post was updated to reflect the following clarification:
The Hatchet reported that the new course will be restricted to history majors. Registration will be initially restricted to history majors, but the course will be opened to all students if open spots remain following registration.

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