Ole Miss should acknowledge its use of slave labor

Posted on Sep 21 2016 - 8:01am by Allen Coon

In 1848 the Mississippi Legislature chartered the University of Mississippi – an institution “founded originally,” as UM Chancellor John Newton Waddel stated in 1870, “for the education of the white race.” This campus prohibited blackness till James Meredith forcibly integrated UM, but our university was built upon the backs of enslaved African-Americans.

All but one of UM’s original thirteen Board of Trustee members owned slaves, and according to 1850 census data, they collectively owned over 700 people. The Board of Trustees minutes indicate that local slaveholders, including Robert Sheegog, Jacob Thompson, J.E. Market, and unnamed others, leased slaves to the university to assist in early land-clearing and construction efforts. Slave labor built the Lyceum, the Croft Institute (formerly the Old Chapel), and the Barnard Observatory. University Presidents Augustus B. Longstreet (10), Frederick A.P. Barnard (2), and John Waddel (7) owned slaves, and the 1860 Federal Census Slave Schedule shows UM faculty members owned a total of 118 slaves. Acts of violence and abuse against slaves were not uncommon: UM records reference the sexual assault of Jane, a female slave, in 1860, and “college negros” were frequently beat and whipped.

The old times here are not forgotten, yet official histories omit our university’s relationship with the peculiar institution of slavery. Our buildings and halls honor white supremacy and its adherents, including slaveholders Lamar, Longstreet, and Barnard, and segregationists Paul B. Johnson Jr. and Trent Lott; but UM has forgotten Jane, Marcus, and Martin, the “college negroes.”

The legacy of University of Mississippi is rooted in enslavement and exploitation, but we have an obligation to build a future founded on principles of reconciliation and healing. As an institution of higher learning, our university must confront the dark truths of our past, and attempt to atone. This process of soul-searching will raise difficult and complex questions: How can the University of Mississippi reconcile its sins? What is the debt that this institution owes? What steps must be taken to repay that debt? To whom is that debt owed? What answers we may find will be controversial and painful. Yet UM has a unique responsibility to its community and its students to publicly acknowledge and address the university’s relationship with slavery, and rectify the wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by the university.

Allen Coon is a double major in public policy leadership and African American studies from Petal, Mississippi.