Coming to terms with slavery and segregation at GW

Each year, GW sends faculty members a brochure reminding us about the University’s ethics policies with the headline: What would George do? It turns out George Washington would skirt state law to hold onto his slaves and he would break federal law to try to get one of them back.

I learned this on Feb. 20 from Rutgers University’s historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar – who spoke at GW about her new book – “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge” – which is a National Book Award finalist. Throughout his two terms as president in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at the time, Washington rotated slaves back and forth to Mount Vernon to evade Pennsylvania’s emancipation law, which declared slaves entering the state to be free after six months.

Then, when Ona Judge, who was Martha Washington’s enslaved seamstress and personal servant, escaped to New Hampshire, the nation’s first president used government resources to get her back. In order to do that, he violated the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which Washington himself had signed into law. The Act allowed Washington a legal claim to Judge, but only if he went through a process of identifying Judge before a magistrate. Instead, the president sent a federal official – one of his political appointees – first to try to convince her to return, and if that failed, to nab her and carry her back to Virginia. The effort to recover Judge did fail, but it raises critical questions about the founding father that inspired our University.

Washington’s legacy on slavery and race is complicated. In his will, he famously freed his slaves – pending his wife’s death – and called for their education. He praised African American poet Phillis Wheatley’s “genius,” commanded black troops during the Revolution and trusted skilled slaves to help manage his plantation. Privately, he hoped for state-legislated emancipation. But publicly he remained silent. And he never stopped trying to bring Ona Judge back into slavery.

As his namesake institution, we need to take action. We have to go beyond the marble man on our logo – to read, to learn and to come to terms with Washington’s complex life and legacy. Historical interpreters at his Mount Vernon estate have already begun this work, noting, for example, that Washington’s famous dentures may include teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves. While this kind of full reckoning for Thomas Jefferson began two decades ago – in academic history, at Monticello​,​​ ​and on the grounds of University of Virginia – it has only recently begun for George Washington.

Moreover, we have to research and come to terms with the role of slavery in the founding and early decades of our own institution. When Columbian College was founded in 1821, critics lamented that this small Baptist school was not exactly Washington’s vision of a national university. In fact, ​the college​ didn’t officially become The George Washington University until 1904, in a bid to become a national caliber university. But Congress’s charter was non-sectarian, and the Baptists valued classical education and reached out across sections increasingly divided over slavery, so critics hoped for the best.

We have only begun digging into our history, but thanks to researchers funded last year by the office of former President Steven Knapp, we now know that before the Civil War, the majority of our school’s trustees were slaveholders, two of them authors of pro-slavery books and speeches. Two presidents, both originally from the north, became slaveholders while serving the​ ​college. Slaves, alongside free black and immigrant workers, did the manual labor of the college and served students by cleaning the dormitories and classrooms. The ​college’s donor base lay mainly in the rich slaveholding districts of Virginia, Georgia​​ and South Carolina.

At the same time, however, one of Columbian College’s most generous supporters was former President John Quincy Adams, abolition’s most powerful voice in Congress in the 1830s and 1840s. ​And i​n 1847, a Massachusetts student named Henry Jackson Arnold raised money to help a slave named Abram, who was owned by the college steward, try to file a freedom petition in D.C. courts. But ​p​ro-slavery students rioted. Henry was expelled and Abram was likely sold south.

Our institutional legacy is as complex as Washington’s, and it stretches into the 20th century. Beginning in 1946, community members and students, including many World War II veterans, demanded that the University admit African Americans. ​Former University President Cloyd Heck Marvin firmly resisted until 1954, making ​GW the last university in D.C. to drop its racist admissions policy. The shadow of that past is cast over Foggy Bottom today as GW reaches out to diversify our student b​ody and to make previously underrepresented minorities know that they ​should​ claim this space as their own as well.

What would George do today? It’s hard to know, but we have begun that conversation.​ ​Join us at the next event of the Working Group on Slavery and its Legacies on March 29 in Funger Hall for “Cloyd Heck Marvin and the Desegregation of George Washington University,” a talk by Andrew Novak (ESIA ’05), which will be followed by discussion of student proposals to rename the Marvin Center.

Phillip Troutman is​ ​an assistant professor of Writing and of History ​and ​the Deputy Director of Writing in the Disciplines​ ​at the George Washington University.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.