Unpaid Labor Helped Fund America’s Oldest and Best Colleges and Universities


Almost every college and university founded in the United States in 1700s and the 1800s has ties to slavery. Enslaved people were the direct or indirect source of the foundations of these higher education institutions. Said another way, Unpaid Labor is an indispensable factor in the birth, growth, and survival of America’s oldest colleges. Many have proclaimed them to be among our best colleges and universities. In some cases, like Georgetown University, Unpaid Labor is the indispensable factor.

“This is a story, frankly, that every university formed in the 19th century may have some connection to”. That’s what Kirt Von Daack said. He is co-chair of the University of Virginia (U-Va.) Commission. He said this in the Washington Post Article titled "Georgetown joins Brown, U-Va. and others looking anew at slavery." The article also says “Brown (University) found the very endowments (money) used to create their institution were often intimately tied to the trade of enslaved people”. The article said, “universities in the South know the wealth of slaveholders helped build their universities...Any time you’re talking about universities and slavery - this is a national story.”

We don’t know where all of this is going. The Virginia schools seem to be leading the effort to deal with the slave history of our colleges. Their organization is named Universities Studying Slavery. Some of the Virginia colleges are the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, Washington & Lee University, and Sweet Briar College. Some colleges from other states include Georgetown University, Brown University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Mississippi, and Clemson University in South Carolina.

In 1984, former Georgetown Hoyas coach John Thompson, Jr. became the first African-American to win a NCAA championship; giving Georgetown University its only men’s basketball national title. One hundred and forty-eight years earlier, Georgetown University sold 272 enslaved people from Washington, D.C. to keep from going broke. These people likely had similar ancestry as Coach Thompson or many of the players from that talented team. Today, Georgetown University students and alum are making sure that they are not forgotten. Similarly, the money that funded Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island came from the transatlantic slave trade. Slave owners founded all of the Ivy League schools except Cornell University. In his book Ebony & Ivy, Professor Craig Steven Wilder says, “...the academy (colleges and universities) never stood apart from American slavery... it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.”

Unpaid Labor Contribution applauds these institutions. In our most recent article called Admiral Esek Hopkins’ Clock, Brown University, and Unpaid Labor Contribution, we note the good work that Brown University is doing to address their slave history. We encourage them and others to go beyond identifying the history, apologizing, teaching, and building memorials.

It is very important that the history of the contribution of the first 12 generations of African Americans to these institutions, and to the nation, be thoroughly researched. What we need is the whole history behind the Admiral Esek Hopkins’ Clocks at our oldest and best colleges and universities. The truth of that history will do more to help to heal race relations in America than adding or deleting names on college dormitories or building statues on the university square.

Click here to add your name to a growing and deserving movement to support these awesome Americans.