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Tulane must actively address racist history

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There is little doubt that slavery was integral to the founding of Tulane. The Medical College of Louisiana, which would later become Tulane University, was founded in 1834 and predates the Civil War. There is evidence that slave money or labor helped in the formation of the university or the construction of the buildings, but this history is not widely known within the Tulane community.

Tulane’s historical records are certainly accessible in the archives for those interested. The people who are interested, however, are not the same people who need to learn and accept the darker aspects of the university’s history. It would best serve the university as a whole if Tulane would fund a collection of these histories and make them accessible to a wider audience. It would allow students, faculty and staff to begin understanding the nature and legacy of slavery in the South and at Tulane.

This approach has already been implemented with success at other private universities. Last year, Rutgers University Press published “Scarlet and Black,” a collection of history essays written by graduate students on the displacement of Native Americans and use of slave labor in the founding of Rutgers. “Ebony and Ivy” was a 2006 report commissioned by Brown University detailing its connection to the Atlantic slave trade. These works have been presented on campus and made available to students for study.

Making these histories widely accessible does not weaken a person’s loyalty to an institution or foster distaste. Rather, it can offer a timeline of progress and direction to move forward. In this, Tulane might strengthen its relationship with students who have had identities largely ignored in the university’s history.

Hiding these histories by simply changing a name or taking no action does the opposite. Moreover, the lack of funding to research and promote these materials is a failing on the part of Tulane. The Undoing Racism workshop, put on every year by Students Organizing Against Racism, is a great example of work being done to promote anti-racist efforts on campus. The university can support this work by funding it, providing funding to continue similar work and, furthermore, publishing a collected work on the racist history of the university.

These actions would make a powerful impact not only within the Tulane community but within the New Orleans and Southern communities at large.

It makes sense that the universities to lead this charge are located in the Northeast. The South has a long history of denying its racism or normalizing it, as seen in the arguments against removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans. As the monuments have finally been approved for removal, Tulane should continue this momentum by acknowledging the darker aspects of its past. Perhaps the rest of the city will follow beyond the issue of the Confederate monuments. At the very least, it will provide an example of how the issue of racism in public history should be addressed.

The first step to fixing a problem is to acknowledge it. Before Tulane, and the rest of the country, can heal from the generational trauma that is the legacy of slavery, it must be acknowledged.

Tulane University has the opportunity to begin this healing process.

2 Comments

2 Responses to “Tulane must actively address racist history”

  1. Ann Case on March 23rd, 2017 12:26 pm

    Being the University Archivist here, I’d like to address your editorial of March 16, 2017, “Tulane Must Actively Address Racist History.” Because you point out correctly that Tulane’s historical records are available in the archives to those who wish to see them but that few choose to seek them out, I’d like to give everyone a refresher course about the information contained within those records, and to clarify a few points.

    Tulane University owes its existence to the Medical College of Louisiana in 1834. The founding document of that institution, the Prospectus, states that these were the integral reasons why the college was established in New Orleans: 1) because New Orleans was the largest, most accessible town in the southwest; 2) because the hospitals would allow for practical medicine and surgery to be taught at the bedside of patients; 3) because anatomy could be taught so cheaply here; 4) because the city was so healthy for eight months of the year, and suffered seasonal pestilential fevers like yellow fever and malaria, which would allow students to study different diseases; 5) because it was a commercial town with seaman whose frequent accidents allowed for the practice of surgery often; 6) because the large population of the city meant that the hospitals were always filled with patients; and 7) because students could find affordable lodging.

    One of our former students, William Jones, undertook an exhaustive study of the topic of slavery and its relationship with Tulane for his 2013 honors thesis, “TULANE UNIVERSITY’S ANTEBELLUM ANCESTRAL INSTITUTIONS AND SLAVERY.” Jones found no irrefutable evidence from his search through any of the university’s original documents, or in any other documents, of slave money or labor used in the construction of the university’s buildings. He says, “Absent university records or eyewitness accounts, census data and legal records provide indirect evidence that slaves were used in the construction of the university building” (p. 34) – the indirect evidence being that the firm awarded the contract to build the Medical Department building owned slaves. It was his presumption that slaves were used in the construction of the building, not a fact; there is no evidence one way or the other.

    In contrast, Jones describes in much detail the hired janitors, servants, and contract laborers that the university documented using on a regular basis, giving names and salary amounts paid to them. The Board of Administrators of the University of Louisiana (the private Medical College of Louisiana became the public University of Louisiana in 1847 and operated until 1884, when it became Tulane University) hired a number of skilled laborers in the late 1840’s for work in the university buildings. The university turned to a freelance, slave-less, white carpenter named John R. Rogers twice, rather than using slave labor or hiring someone who used slave labor. Jones says that there is only one instance in which “probably a freed or self-hired slave” was contracted to do work at the university. “The same day the Board authorized payment to Rogers for erecting the shed, a man named Cassidy was paid thirty dollars for work and labor done to the Law Department building… The omission of a title or surname indicated Cassidy was black, not deserving of the title of Mister afforded to George Patterson, John R. Rogers, and Maunsel White who were mentioned in the same paragraph….But even if Cassidy was black, the Board still paid him directly rather than his owner, indicating he at least had a great deal of autonomy, living either as a free man or a self-hired slave” (p.43).

    Jones’ thesis’ conclusion includes the following: “The body of work on southern universities is replete with examples of slave ownership or slave hiring by institutions of higher education in the South, but this was not the case at the Medical College of Louisiana or the University of Louisiana. No slaves were mentioned in the Minutes of the Faculty of the Medical College of Louisiana and the Medical Department of the University of Louisiana, and only one African American was recorded in the Minutes of the Board of Administrators. My interpretation of his race and status is based upon the omission of a title and surname rather than a description of his color. Granted, the records of the university are far from complete, especially those pertaining to finances, where transactions relating to slave labor were most likely kept. But a rigorous survey of the Orleans Parish Notarial Archives, where all slave sales were recorded, uncovered no instances of the Medical College of Louisiana or the University of Louisiana buying or selling slaves.” (p. 63)

    This bears repeating: No slaves were ever mentioned in the minutes of the faculty of the Medical College of Louisiana or of the Medical Department of the University of Louisiana. No slaves were ever bought or sold by the Medical College of Louisiana or by the University of Louisiana.

    Jones continues, “Even though the documents do not exist to affirmatively support or deny the use of slave labor at Tulane’s antebellum antecedents after building construction, records have survived that suggest the college and university relied upon the labor of poor whites, many of them immigrants, who were paid for their work. Although this characteristic set the antebellum schools apart from their contemporaries, it was not unusual given their location… Consequently, when the Medical College of Louisiana and the University of Louisiana required janitors or servants, they hired immigrants instead of slaves” (p. 64).

    William Jones’ thesis is available for reading in the University Archives, 202 Jones Hall (open 10-5 M-F). As with all honors theses, it may not be checked out or scanned without his permission.

    Ann Case
    University Archivist

    [Reply]

  2. Carl Bernofsky on April 10th, 2017 5:19 pm

    Tulane’s racist history is a theme that is periodically resurrected as social movements evolve. On my website, I have reprinted a 2005 Hullabaloo article, “Tulane’s regrettable past,” that recounts some of the same issues now being debated. See: http://www.tulanelink.com/tulanelink/tulanepast_box.htm . At the bottom of that article, you will find links to a trove of information about Tulane’s past. Although the website site is not associated with Tulane University, it contains much documentation and reflections on its historical character.

    [Reply]

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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans
Tulane must actively address racist history