Last month, the University of Mississippi and the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context (CACHC) unveiled several contextualization plaques, culminating years of historical research, community input and contentious debate.
During a public ceremony honoring this historic moment, John Neff, director of the University’s Center for Civil War Research and a CACHC contributor, declared that contextualization “acknowledge[s] our indebtedness to the enslaved laborers who built our campus,” but “also acknowledge[s] that the decisions made in the past are not our decisions today. By contextualizing these important aspects of our campus, we emphasize the distance we have traveled between our time and theirs, all those crossroads through which we have passed.”
Contextualization is an important communal act, and it is long overdue. We ought to commend the committee for its diligence and our university leadership for its newfound dedication to truth-telling.
However, public acknowledgement also demands public acceptance of institutional culpability, of debts owed and of old wrongs still living.
William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Our institutional existence is indebted to enslaved laborers. Each and every building built on this campus before the Civil War was a building built through slave labor either rented or owned by our university. Trustees, chancellors, faculty and students owned slaves, some of whom were housed on campus grounds. Many slaves were abused, beaten or raped.
If paid their due, if compensated for unpaid wages and indignities suffered, what would these exploited laborers have been owed? To whom is their debt and its accrued interest owed? Their living descendants?
What of those denied attendance at Ole Miss during the Jim Crow era? What human opportunity, what black potential was wasted during a century of Ole Miss segregation? How many African American applicants did Ole Miss deny an education?
What of those African American Mississippians who, while unable to trace their slave lineage, suffered and still suffer the lasting violence of white supremacist ideologies defended by university chancellors and students? A 2014 study shows that former slave-holding counties claim worse educational attainment among their black citizens than comparable non-slave counties, contributing to a growing racial wage gap nationwide. Former slave states also claimed significant initial education gaps between white and black citizens due to state-sanctioned slave illiteracy and racist post-Reconstruction education policies and practices, thus expanding existing education inequalities between former slave and non-slave states.
Institutional repayments are neither new nor revolutionary and have recompensed perpetrators and the persecuted alike. After a slave revolt liberated colonial Haiti in 1804, France and its displaced slaveholders demanded repayment for their newly freed slave property—a debt Haiti paid until 1947. Almost a year before the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act of 1862, abolishing slavery in the nation’s capital but compensating former slaveholders up to $300 per slave freed. Since the 1970s, the United States has provided Native American tribes with millions of acres and billions of dollars, the U.S. Civil Liberties Act of 1988 compensated Japanese-American victims of WWII U.S. internment camps and the United States and European countries continue to monetarily support Holocaust survivors.
Many colleges and universities have sought to reckon with their slave-owning pasts, as well. Some Southern institutions, such as Emory University, the University of Alabama and Washington and Lee University, have offered official statements of regret regarding their slave pasts. Other universities—Brown University, the University of Virginia, Harvard University and Princeton University—have dedicated significant resources to researching their institutional relationships to slavery. Georgetown University, which once owned and sold 272 slaves, has sought atonement through its unprecedented promise to assign preferential admission status to university applicants who trace their lineage to the enslaved workers of Georgetown. However, many descendants demand much more; they demand restitution.
If we hope to be an honest, fair community, now and forever to respect the dignity of each person—if we hope to respect the dignity of each person, of persons once enslaved, of persons denied attendance because of our Jim Crow policies, and of persons still suffering because of slave-age legacies of unequal education, income inequality and other historic injustices—we must accept that our institutional responsibility to recognize and redress these historic sins is and will always be eternal.
The University of Mississippi may never absolve itself of its debts. The lives lost, the wrongs committed and the damage done may never be repaid. Yet we must try.
Allen Coon is a senior public policy leadership, African-American studies, and sociology triple major from Petal.