What Links a School to Slavery?

Colleges and universities across the United States are taking a hard look at their connections to the institution of slavery. What does it mean for a school or university to have ties to slavery? What are the catalysts for a school to engage in examining their own connections to slavery? What counts as a tie to slavery?

There seems to be several categories of what fits as a school’s connection to slavery—and many schools fit one or more of the following:

  • The source of a school’s initial funding.
  • The source of a school’s endowment.
  • The connection of a school’s founders or leadership to slavery.
  • The ownership and/or sale of enslaved peoples.
  • Serving a student body derived from families that economically benefited from slavery (directly and indirectly).
  • The presence of slaves owned by students.
  • The land on which a college or university is situated.

I’m sure that additional categories could be added to the above list.

My continued work on the Bethlehem Boarding School has prompted me to think about what it means for a school to have connections to the institution of slavery. Previously I’ve written about how Moravian College has embraced a mythologized Revolutionary past that harkens back to the Bethlehem Boarding School. I’ve touched on how this mythology does a disservice to the history of women’s education in the early United States.

The conventional wisdom regarding the Bethlehem Boarding School is that after the Revolution the elite families of early America began sending their daughters to the school. It is assumed that these families were elite, but no one really asks how these families were part of the economic elite were in the first place. In researching the families that sent their daughters to the Bethlehem Boarding School I’ve seen the commonality of the institution of slavery linking them together.

Here are a few of those links:

  • An enslaved person accompanied Peggy Vriehuis to Bethlehem.
  • Archibald Currie, a New York merchant, participated in the slave trade.
  • Adriana Van Beverhoudt was an early student at the Boarding School. This is the same Beverhoudt family that you might have read about in Rebecca’s Revival.
  • Nathaniel Greene’s daughters attended the Boarding School.
  • Merchants: Various families came from the merchant class of the Northeast. Their goods, like many other merchants, came from the labor of the enslaved.
  • Various leaders in business and commerce from New York.
  • I’ve seen newspaper ads for the runaways and the sale of slaves.
  • The school set up by the Moravians was initially created to serve the children of missionaries. The initial founding of the school can also be problematic given the relationship of the Moravians’ missionaries to slavery.

I wonder about the question of what constitutes a tie to slavery in the context of Moravian College and their embrace of an early American past. Are the following questions enough to prompt introspection regarding slavery?

  • Is it enough that students that come from areas were slavery was practiced?
  • Is it a connection to a merchant and business class that benefited from a trade in commodities touched by slavery?
  • Does it mean a student bringing an enslaved person to the school?

I can point to students that fit each of those criteria- and I left out ones from slave holding families. If Moravian College invokes a revolutionary past- shouldn’t they be asking these questions? My research so far has only focused on the period between 1786 to 1815, and mostly the early 1790s. During this time the majority of the student population came from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. The demographic of the student body begins to turn southwards after around 1812; I’ve not looked far into those families.

A lot of my ideas are in an early phase. I have more questions than answers. I want to continue exploring these topics. I felt, at this stage, I needed to write something. I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts.


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